Barcelona's La Maisa: Like a laboratory  
  20 years ago, Barça had faith in its cantera. The proposal was Cruyff’s, but, curiously, the decision was taken by Núñez, a president that has always been distinguished by his signings of the best world players. Oriol Tort was the soul of the project that two decades later developed some exceptional results. When Louis van Gaal expressed his desire that one day Barça will win the Champions League with eleven home grown players, laughter ran through the Barcelona environment, but that dream is much closer today. In fact, in the Champions League victory in Rome, eight players from La Masía played and two were on the bench. More than half of the spots on the first team today are in the hands of canteranos, so the impossible challenge of Van Gaal is already within reach, especially now that Guardiola has made the decision that the next signings will be from Barça B, at the same time as Wenger just announced that he is running out of patience with the youth…

To Hell and not by chance

May, 2007: Barça B descends into the hell of the Third Division, dragging the ‘C’ team into practical disappearance. It is not by chance, but the

result of an erroneous step from all points of view.  Barça B is a team without soul, nor future, without concrete and measurable objectives, almost a compromised team for a directive staff that has put all of its interest into the successes of the first team. Pure shortsightedness.  The youth system predestined to nurture the club’s figures is now doomed in an infernal division, that of the forgotten.  The competitive and developmental conditions are impoverished and the distance from the first team enlarged.

But besides what the relegation meant as a step for the second team, the loss of category underlined the deficiencies in the structure of Barça’s own formative system.  The youth team did not sustain itself as a team, but in addition, there had not been sufficient human resources to help avoid the relegation.  At a macro-structural level, Barça Atlétic had acquired  all of the characteristics of the modest teams, not very competitve and without ambition: an insubstantial,  dull, and terminal team whose only tangible objective is to avoid relegation at the end of agonizing seasons.

The youth team lacked a plan. At a micro-structural level, it is a team where the good players barely last.  Parameters of measurement that configure the essential route of player formation don’t exist after they reach the end of the juvenile age. Save only those that stand out powerfully, the rest languish in ‘B’ with the hope for an opportunity that never comes. Yes, Rijkaard brought up Messi, Bojan, and Gio Dos Santos, and the ‘Barcelonistas’ seem satisfied with the fruits of the cantera, but in reality, there does not exist a fluid continuity: the youth team is not the official provider for the first team, but only a small shelf to hold the great figures before they make the jump. In addition, external signings proliferate without any real projection, they simply arrive to help save the youth team from relegation and in turn slow down the formative process of the youngest ones, when they cannot afford it.  The system and the level of development of the youth club remains portrayed by the relegation to the Third Division: it is antiquated, archaic, confusing, and inadequate system for the reality of the 21st century.

Catharsis and The Plan

One has to do a catharsis, and the directive staff of Laporta understood this. Guardiola arrives and a plan arrives: first, recover the B team; then the Juvenil; only afterwards (less than a month later) the formative teams all the way down to the Benjamín. I’ll explain in detail the plan that Guardiola and his people designed in 2007. As a concept, it is organized into three core themes:

1.     Logistical setting

2.     Profile generator

3.     Technical flowchart

The basic premise of the new plan is that talent is not enough to be competitive.  One has to be professional and modernized.  La Ciutat Esportiva is key because it allows the players to be encloistered in a professional setting, surrounded by technological resources that will allow them to follow the trainings and trajectories, correcting them and forming them, bringing them closer to the elite levels.  A laboratory of I+D to instill the football style in players that are learning what it is to be a professional.

The managers are known: first Guardiola, later Luis Enrique. And finally, then the new changes to the flowchart and coaches to continue taking the ideas born in 2007 to the depth of the organization.  Managers chosen because they know how to combine the maximum professional rigor with a close and caring treatment in as a competitive key.  Managers that turn into leaders.  Leaders that make a concrete contribution in the sportive field.

1.     Competitiveness

2.     Formation

3.     Sporting culture

Barça ‘B‘ will not just be a simple transition rung, but will begin to be considered and managed like one more team: young but with the same interest in competing as any other.  But not to compete without objectives, but to achieve the maximum: to be champion in their division.  And with the highest internal competitiveness: he who sleeps loses his spot because there is always another, including from the juvenil level, who wants to take that spot.  In addition, they will achieve this respecting the formative parameters put on them: the youth that learn the trade daily, that are corrected as a group or individually, that are learning strategies, tactics, and behavior both on the field and off.

Barça ‘B‘ will not just be a simple transition rung, but will begin to be considered and managed like one more team: young but with the same interest in competing as any other.  But not to compete without objectives, but to achieve the maximum: to be champion in their division.  And with the highest internal competitiveness: he who sleeps loses his spot because there is always another, including from the juvenil level, who wants to take that spot. In addition, they will achieve this respecting the formative parameters put on them: the youth will learn the trade daily, be corrected as a group or individually, and learn strategies, tactics, and behavior both on the field and off.

The arrival of former players of a high level to that structure brings a plus with respect to instilling the values of a true and credible sports culture.  More than sports, we would have to talk about a culture of hard work.  A sports culture based on values distant from the glamour or the frivolous pedigree to belong to a club like Barcelona and to form part of its cantera, potential figures for the future.  Each day, each training, each talk instills values such as hard work, sacrifice, respect, responsibility, humility, rigor, professionalism, demanding, ambition, solidarity, constance, and generosity.  Values that trainers who have been great champions express, and values that should be put equally with the competitive objective: what worth will it have in 20 years, Guardiola and Luis Enrique ask them, saying that you played in Barça B if you weren’t capable of getting out of the Third Division?

Backbone and pearls

In review, the ideological values are defined for Barça B, marking limits and competitive ambitions, endowing the team with a logistical coach and human innovator to achieve the double objective: to be a group with profound formative roots, but with the highest competitive capacity at all levels.  And from here emerges a micro-detailed plan that divides the players into two categories:

1. The ‘backbone‘ players
2. The pearls

The first are the ones that hold the team together competitively without their origin having excessive importance, whether they have been signed or surpass the average age of the team.

They are players who generally a bit older, experienced, restrained and without excess, placed by strategic form to maintain the competitive rhythm without holding back the growth of the second category, the pearls, the ones marked with a red asterisks by their special value and that follow a guided process, prudent, without hurry, that allows them to maximize their formative progression.  The average of the team should be between two to two and a half years of professional competition experience.

In order to define the ‘backbone players’ one has to take into account their age, their type, their player profile, and their durability.  They have to be at least 21 years old and as a maximum, 26.  They should share similar distinct lines, in order to act as a support structure for the younger players.  And they will be in B for two years at the most, to avoid holding back those below them.  Their individual objective will be to shine in the second team of the ‘Barça brand’ to achieve later a relevant professional exit. To this rule of two seasons, an exception in case of serious injury is applied.  Players with this profile have been Córcoles, Espasandín, Chico, Dimas, Abraham, Longás, Xavi Torres, Víctor Vázquez, Benja, Armando, Nolito, Edu Oriol or Jonathan Soriano. Of the least amount of time in the team was Chico, with only six months, the most, Víctor Vázquez, who is already in his fourth year because of a serious injury he suffered. ‘B’ will have each year various men of this profile: those that maintain the framework in competitive order and permit the growth of the pearls. From this point of view one understands the external requests of Luis Enrique: midfielder Carlos Carmona (23 years, ex-Recreo) or forward Saúl Berjón (24 years, ex-Las Palmas).

The three obligatory phases

The pearls come from the Juvenil level and are grouped into two essential blocks: youth completely formed (that between one and two years should make the big jump to the first team) and youth in their last year (in the Juvenil level), that will have a margin between 1.5 to 2.5 years to confirm themselves. They are divided into three phases:

Phase 1.  Reserve-rotation: their only obligation is to compete. Nothing determined is expected from them and they are not penalized for their errors.  They are expected to get to know the professional method and acquire minutes.

Phase 2. Rotation-maturation: the player now feels like he forms a permamnet part of the structure and has to be conscious that his contribution is decisive: he is co-responsible for his general performance.

Phase 3. Key player: this phase defines the future of the pearl.  He enters the group of players closest to the first team and acquires the status of key player for B.  He accumulates two more phases than the majority of his teammates, so he has the obligation to carry the team and guarantee its competitiveness.  He is directly responsible for the evolution of the team.  There has to be in constant tension in case he is called up by the first team.  His future is decided in this phase.

Each one of these phases is seen as a period between 6 and 9 months. The player that arrives at B does so after finalizing his junior stage in the Juvenil teams and will then have two years to triumph in B; and if one includes the last year in Juvenil the period becomes three years.  In whatever case, the progress and potential and the possibility of moving to the first team of the 21 players [in B] will be evaluated in detail.  If that is not possible, he will have acquired a recognizable profile and excellent values that will allow him to continue his professional career with other clubs.

The great laboratory of I+D (investigación y desarrollo – research and development)

Their development will be equalized, neither too fast, which could hurt them, nor too slow, which would make them comfortable without progression. If their talent is dazzling, their progress can be acclerated, but they cannot avoid the three phases.  If needed, the duration can be reduced but the steps are not skipped.  It is for this reason that on occasion, the coach might make decisions that seem contradictory, to bring players back and forth between two distinct teams.  But all of this obeys the indicated programming and is not capricious. In the case of player-pearls, the list that has been maintained in the last three seasons has been composed of men such as Marc Valiente, Victor Sánchez, Jeffren, Urbano, Rueda, Marc Crosas, Toribio, Pedro, Pau Torres, Oier, Iago Falqué, Alberto Botía, Bolaños, Sergio Busquets, Jonathan, Thiago Alcántara, or Gai Assulin. As is logical, some of them advanced to the first team (and are world champions, as well), while others are close to doing so; some arrived and could not confirm their talent, and others have already left the club.

The past year, the pearls maintained in B included Miño, Fontàs, Martín Montoya, Carles Planas, Rochina, Oriol Romeu, Masip, Benítez, Bartra, Muniesa, Sergi Gómez, Albert Dalmau, Luque, Riverola and Sergi Roberto, names that people the national youth teams and collaborated powerfully in the rise to the Second Division. The process for all continues, stronger than ever with the new technical organization established some weeks ago, separating the professional football (including Juvenil) from the formative.  That organization makes official the plans designed in 2007 by Guardiola and Luis Enrique and structurally modifies the concept of Barça’s cantera.  It is now not just a bunch of players that come and go, but an authentic formative school, with plans and strictly programmed and measurable phases and with its objectives laid out. And now it [the cantera] has been converted into not just a laboratory of research and advanced development, but also the most important strategical decision made by Barça in the past decade.


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