“I won the European Cup as a player and this feels like a junior Champions League so we are very proud to be in it…But we are also proud to have used players born in 1995 against opponents born in 1992 – our guys will be more experienced as a result and have to use speed of thought and intelligence to cope…I think that some teams probably still have the idea that it’s about winning and thus they take decisions differently on who to play. For us it’s about formation and learning not ultimately about winning.” – Oscar Garcia, manager of Juvenil A until May 2012
A few weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to attend the NextGen Series group stage game between Barça and Spurs at White Hart Lane with a friend. Tickets were sensibly priced at 5 pounds and kids got in for free – as a result, attendance was a quite reasonable 8,887.
Barça won the game 0-2 with both goals coming from striker Sandro. The scoreline obscures just how precarious Barça’s advantage had been – they never commanded the flow of the game and their second was scored from a long punt down the field. The team on the field (Barça’s highest age division team, Juvenil A) was clearly still bedding in. There were periods of the rapid interplay we expect from a Barça team, but not very many.
I was pleased, however, to note that the goalkeeper persisted in passing the ball out from the back, even when under pressure; that the centerbacks seemed to want the ball and pass it with aplomb; the fullbacks roamed forward and interchanged well with the dynamic duo bossing the wings, and a slight boy turned away from clusters of opposing players in midfield. For present purposes, their names don’t matter.
Of course, they do matter in the medium to long term. The youth system exists to produce players for the first team.
Jean Marie Dongou, the top scorer in last season’s competition (despite Barça going out at the quarter-finals), is only 17 years old. He has now been deemed too good for Juvenil A and rightly promoted to Barça B. Alex Grimaldo, another of last year’s stars, has also been promoted. He’s 17 too.
These players are on the fast track.
La Masia’s reputation has grown in leaps and bounds in recent years because it is credited for the success of the first team. Think about it again: a successful first team built around La Masia graduates. That would have sounded like a fairytale to many fans even just 6 years ago. In Barça’s 04-06 dream team, the midfield general and star player were both foreign signings. The ‘brand’ of the La Masia-educated midfielder, in particular, didn’t have half the strength it has today.
In other words, the youth system has done exactly what it’s meant to do: produce players who can adapt to the first team, in terms of 1) quality, 2) mentality, 3) character/discipline and 4) style. [In my very first post for this parish, I used a similar system to talk about the integration of signings. The differences are deliberate.]
If we get one or two players per age group who can tick all those boxes, the system has done well, because they’ve produced a 15m+ signing at a fraction of the price. Then the next question becomes: is there a vacancy on the first team for them to fill? [Which is a whole other kettle of fish.]
So how does the NextGen Series fit into that picture?
“The focus in decades past [in English football] was producing the biggest and strongest player. You always saw it in young teams. In youth football it was the team with the biggest, quickest and strongest lads who won things. Those lads were then promoted into the professional game and then the first team.” – Clark Carlisle, York City defender and chairman of the UK Professional Footballers’ Association, in World Soccer magazine
A youth system with ambitions of developing players for the first team should not have winning as its first priority. It doesn’t hurt to win, certainly, but youth football should, as far as possible, be free of the results-above-all view of football which prevails at the top level. [Many Barça fans complain about Eusebio, the B team manager, for his apparent lack of understanding of this concept. But I digress.]
Teams aren’t entering the NextGen Series simply because it’s another trophy to win. In Barça’s case, I want to briefly talk about what kind of effect it can have in terms of two of the four categories mentioned above.
There’s no doubt that experience of competitive football can only help a player hoping to settle into playing in front of the Camp Nou every other week. It’s fantastic for Barça that Barça B is in the second division, and do reasonably well up against clubs who’ve just been relegated from the first division. [One might say they should do well, since Barça B’s budget is bigger than that of many Segunda clubs, but that’s another issue for another day.] This means that players get to experience competitive football which should, in theory, make them ready for the first team.
The NextGen Series operates at the next age level down, U19. It’s fair to say that the players who travelled to White Hart Lane had probably never played in such rarefied surroundings before. As far as development is concerned, what is important is the experience gained: in front of the media, travelling and possibly overnight stays for away games, playing teams from different leagues, relatively high-stakes knock-out football, exposure to fame and notoriety at an earlier age.
In the current NextGen squad, roughly half are 18. The rest are younger. As Oscar Garcia pointed out, this is actually a sensible thing to do. For some players, it just doesn’t make sense to promote them once a year. If they’re good enough for the next level up, then they should be there regardless of age. How they take to this challenge is a good indicator for evaluating if they’re ready to step up again.
I have a particular pet theory about the development of young players at age-limited international tournaments. The intensity of competition, the bright lights of a relatively big stage, an unfamiliar environment – all these things combine to make it a challenging time for players. Some players flourish under the pressure and take one more step forward in their development. They were already good players before the tournament – but performing well on such a stage consolidates confidence like nothing else. [Anybody who watched Argentina’s games in the 2005 and 2007 U20 World Cups knows what I’m talking about.] The NextGen Series can have a similar effect at club level.
[On a related note: almost the entire squad came over to the small group of Barça fans (some from the London penya) after the game to applaud them. A nice touch.]
As I mentioned before, the youth system is ideally a streamlined process for producing first team players. The successful replication of the first team’s playing style is an essential part of that process.
I read with interest a report in World Soccer magazine which stated that Bayern Munich’s new director of sport, Matthias Sammer, had been tasked with developing a ‘house style’ for the club’s various teams to follow. The idea of fostering such a style might be said to be in vogue right now, in part due to the success Barça have had in producing players with a near-telepathic understanding of each other and of the system used by the first team. We’ve got a head start, an enviable advantage that we have to hold on to and try to strengthen.
Back to the game I saw for a moment. The English punters around me expected Barça’s youth to be skilled. They expected a certain style of play, which has become Barça’s signature around the world. Here’s the team from that night: Ondoa; Ekpolo, Costa, Bagnack, Quintilla (Gafarot, 87′); Quesada, Samper, Calvet (Babunski, 78′); Adama (Cristian, 77′), Sandro (Huertas, 86′), Ebwelle (Olivan, 82′)
It’s a team that reflects the changing face of La Masia. The majority of graduates will probably still be Spaniards, but we now have South Americans, Africans and Asians being touted as future stars. If they do make it, they’ll be following the footsteps of Thiago Motta, Leo Messi and Giovanni Dos Santos. Messi is probably the best example: someone who came into La Masia with his own (very Argentinian) way of playing, and grafted his understanding of the Barça system on to that. Just as an example, I saw the same thing happening with flying winger Adama in White Hart Lane. He played with great character and verve, and with an excellent understanding of his responsibilities within the Barça system. When we say that much mocked phrase ‘Barça DNA’, that’s probably what we mean.
What I want to see in the rest of Barça’s games in the NextGen Series this season is fewer long punts down field. I’d like to see them using their individual talents better and becoming a team. One thing that’s very valuable within the particular context of the NextGen competition is the variety of styles Barça’s kids will face. Trying to figure out how to overcome each opponent when they know what your basic system is will be quite valuable practice for young players who have aspirations of first team glory.
Lastly, can I just say as a non-Spanish Cule that it gives me warm fuzzy feelings to see British kids in Barça jerseys. It’s a great compliment to how good the team has been in the past five years that it’s captured the imagination of children far outside the borders of Catalunya. Someone or something you imprint on at that age never leaves you. It’s why I smile every time I see footage of Brazilian Ronaldo.