Google+ Blueprint for Football: Barcelona's Growing Pains

Monday, December 2, 2013

Barcelona's Growing Pains

This article was originally included in Blueprint for Football Extra.  Get your copy now (for free)

On the face of it, everything’s going well so far this season for Barcelona.  Leo Messi’s and Victor Valdez’s injuries might put a dampner on proceedings but they’re top of the Spanish league, have made it to the next stage of the Champions League with ease and (perhaps most importantly) beat Real Madrid in the season’s first classico.

Despite all that, however, not everyone is happy and at the heart of this discontent is an ideological debate.

Barcelona’s modern day success was built at La Masia and a youth system that has produced a generation of fantastic players.  The heart of the current side grew up together playing a particular brand of attacking football and ended up dominating the world of football in the same manner.  There was a fantastical element to their success and the idealist in every one of us wanted to believe that they could keep on producing team after team of home grown stars.  

And, indeed, they might well develop such players but it is becoming increasingly unlikely that these players will get the same opportunities of their predecessors.  

The reason for that is that Barcelona seem to have been shifting to a system that greatly resembles Real Madrid’s infamous ‘Zidanes Y Pavones’; a team made up of a mixture of world stars bought at huge expense along with a group local players.  It is this (unstated) policy that has seen them spend heavily on Alexis Sanchez, Alex Song and Neymar these past couple of years.

At most other clubs, fans would see the arrival of those players as a sign of the club’s ambition; a statement of intent.  Not at Barcelona, however, where they are looked at with suspicion, one borne of the belief that they are blocking the path of the next generation of stars.

That suspicion has been further fuelled by Martin Montoya’s rumoured refusal to sign a new contract at Barcelona and Christian Tello’s apparent willingness to move given the limited space that he is finding (even if he did sign a new contract last summer).  Indeed there are many who believe that Gerard Deloufeu, currently on loan at Everton, will never again put on a Barcelona shirt.

The truth is that Barcelona, like so many other clubs, are finding it difficult to establish a balance between the pressure that comes with the expectation of winning and the desire to develop their own players.

All this is compounded by the arrival of Gerardo Martino as manager.  His two predecessors had come through the ranks at Barcelona and, as such, knew both the importance attached to home grown players by the Nou Camp regulars and the quality of the players that there were in the B team.  

Perhaps more importantly, however, their history at the club meant that any slips would be overlooked giving them greater scope to experiment. 

Martino probably does not have that luxury and he’s pragmatic enough to know that.  He might want to give a young player an opportunity but he’ll know that there are risks attached to doing so.  Given the choice of starting with Dani Alves or Martin Montoya, for instance, he’s always going to go with the experienced Brazilian precisely because that experience makes him less likely to make a mistake.  It will be the same in other areas as well, with experienced and established players getting the bulk of the playing time.

At this stage in his career as Barca manager he does not have the luxury of making the choice that will serve them best in the long run; he’s still trying to consolidate his position.  If he sees any gaps in the squad, he’s more likely to ask the directors to buy him a readymade replacement than try to slowly give opportunities to a young player in the hope that he will eventually provide the solutions that he is looking for. 

All of this goes to highlight just how important stability at all levels is for a club.  Whilst having a good youth system is essential if you want players to come through, ultimately it is unlikely to do anywhere near as well as it should if there is constant uncertainty and changes at first team level.  

Having a manager who is in a position to look three or four years down the line, rather than three or four games, is a crucial yet, surprisingly, often overlooked factor in the development of players.  Something that clubs should (but most won’t) keep in mind.

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