Barça v Spurs in the NextGen Series: a few thoughts on youth development

“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.

Categorized as Barcelona

By Linda

20-something Chinese Kiwi Barrister. Enjoys short walks on the beach, Argentinian players and Pep Guardiola. @blackwhitengrey for hot takes on all three.


    1. As compared to – Adriano: “People have received me well in Barcelona. Catalans are open-minded people. We’re considering to stay here after I retired.” [cat radio via barcastuff]

    2. Well, can’t speak for him, but generally Catalans I’ve met are very encouraging. Of course many, many non-Catalans and non-Spanish make the trek to the Camp Nou to see Barça, including me this past Saturday. As the match ended, people started heading out, but my friend and I stayed to sing the himno. She told me afterwards that this old man saw her singing, and smiled at her. Then his glance moved past her to me (she is Catalan, I am very obviously not) and she could tell he was very surprised. He apparently watched me for the rest of the verse, in my camiseta belting out the himno, and made eye contact with her again, and gave her a thumbs-up.

      (blitzen, I saw your reply to my comment in the other thread. Glad I could make you laugh!)

    3. That’s consistent with my own experiences as well, yana. Locals were lovely when I was in Barcelona to see Barca v Atletico the season before last.

    4. Met a group of Cules outside a pub back home and belted out the himno and they were happy as fuck! I also get similar responses where I am right now and always its them being so happy that Barça has fans the globe over!

  1. Whoa! Guardiola is in the Chicago area, for the Ryder Cup! Wonder if anyone will know who he is as he walks around.

    Interview with RoSELL here:

    It’s vexing that RoSELL raises the possibility of Messi’s contract expiring along with his presidency, and that he would hate to have Messi leave when his presidency ends. For real?

    Also says that FCB is committed to TV revenue sharing. He also talks about more CL teams, to 64, and have to reduce local leagues, down to 16 teams in Liga. Interesting interview.

    1. Bah – won’t play for me in any browser.

      That’s been Rosell’s way throughout. Little subtle threats to spread unnecessary F.U.D.

      “If you don’t elect me, the club is doomed and has no transparency.”
      “If we don’t sell the shirt, the club will go bankrupt.”
      “If you don’t re-elect me, Messi may leave.”

      As for reducing the # of Liga clubs to 16 – that’s easy.

      Make Catalunya independent, and lose Barca and Espanyol. Extend Catalunya to Valencia and the Balearics, and there goes Valencia, Levante and Mallorca.

      Make the Basque country independent (‘cos their clamour will grow stronger if Catalunya should get it) and take out At. Bilbao, R. Sociedad and Osasuna.

      Ba-da-bing! The RFEF will be quaking at the thought of lost revenue. Villar might have to actually work for a living.

      I think that Guardiola was invited to be at the Ryder Cup by the captain of the Spanish team. He was encouraging the captain to make an inspirational video (like the one that he did for Rome) for Spain’s golf team.

    2. If Catalunya becomes independent it will be very interesting to see what happens with La Liga. It is obviously in nobody’s interest (certainly not in ours) to split the league – who are we going to play against? Girona and L’hospitalet? So I imagine everyone will be for preserving a common competition, but is that even legally possible???

      That looks like a more difficult problem that exiting and reentering the EU to me…

    3. There are definitely precedents for teams playing in ‘foreign’ leagues. In New Zealand, we have the Wellington Phoenix, which plays in the Australian A-League.

      (Completely off-topic, but an independent Catalunya would have a very difficult time getting into the EU. I imagine Spain would block their bid, and they need unanimous approval.)

    4. If Spain would block their bid, Spain would never let them become independent to become with – which is the most likely development of the situation anyway

    5. D’uh! Of course, what was I thinking? Been watching too much Davis Cup! Thanks for the amendment, Jim!

    6. Re: Messi’s contract renewal, I’ve been trying to do some research on contract length rules in Spain. Not speaking much Spanish has not been helpful for that. Can anyone help there? Looking in particular for Spanish regulations governing player transfers, which will have a provision about the maximum allowable length for a player contract.

    7. I highly doubt Messi would ever want to leave the club, except late in his career (i.e., as Guardiola did). There isn’t another team where he would feel better.

    8. Player contracts are governed by 2 sets of regulations in the following order:
      1. The local labour laws, and then
      2. The minimum FIFA (FIFPro) player contract laws.

      Spanish law sets no limit on number of years over which a contract can be set – in this case it’s something to be decided between club and player.

      However, it has to be of a fixed term and there has to be provision for either the club or the player to terminate the contract with an agreed termination fee (either fixed or as a percentage on # of years left to run) written into the contract.

      (The FIFA rules recommend that a contract is not signed for more than 5 years, but this is over-ruled by the local labour laws of individual countries, and was included in the FIFPro laws to protect players in countries which do not have established (or lax) labour laws when it comes to contract labour.)

      This is where it gets more complicated, because here is where the FIFA laws kick in.

      Within the players’ contracts, a “protection period” is written in, which is the minimum time that a player is bound by his contract.

      With contracts that conclude before a player reaches the age of 28 years old, this is the first 3 years (seasons) of a contract. (Which is why most contracts for players under the ages of 28 are only set for 3 years at a time – unless they are exceptional players such as Messi or Cristiano.)

      After a player turns 28, this minimum time is reduced to 2 years (seasons) before a player can start either re-negotiating a new contract with the existing club or look for a new club.

      As Messi last signed a renewal in 2009 and he is still under the age of 28, that 3 year protection period on his existing contract (until 2016) is now due to expire.

      This legally means that Messi can look to go elsewhere or other clubs can officially express interest in acquiring his services. His contract can be bought out.

      Naturally, the club is anxious to begin the renewal process!

      (Because of these protection periods which FIFPro has in place, you will rarely see a player contract for an extensive number of years – which is why when someone like Xavi or Puyol indicates that they want to stay at Barca for life, the club will still offer them a 3-5 year contract so that neither party is bound for much longer than that. It makes no sense for a club or player to commit to years much beyond the protection periods.)

    9. Meant to add, perhaps superflously: although local labour laws have precedence, the whole contract negotiation is still essentially governed by those FIFPro “protection periods”!

    10. Thank you very much! I knew how the FIFA structure worked, having spent a fun few hours looking through the FIFA Regulations (riveting read…), but had no idea if the Spanish league had adopted the rule about 5 years being the maximum term, as it’s one of the rules that federations have a choice over, rather than one of the ones they must adopt under the Regulations.

    11. Messi’s last contract, signed in 2009, was for 7 years until 2016. I remember that it caused a ruckus when someone at FIFPro questioned the length of the term and said that it contravened the 5 year period.

      Barca’s lawyers had to readdress the contract, but found that there was no problem because the FIFPro 5 year limit was only there for countries which had no formalised labour laws.

      As Spain’s labour laws are mature, the club was within its rights to offer Messi a 7 year deal. However, the FIFPro 3 year “protection period” still applies – hence the scramble to negotiate a new deal this season.

      Messi will most likely benefit from a healthier deal and the club would probably wish to raise his buyout clause which currently is set at Eur250 million.

    12. I never thought I would say this about a buyout clause, but 250 million is ridiculously low – given that close to 100 million were actually paid for a player, I can imagine someone (City or PSG) actually putting these money on the table if the player would agree (and if there were no financial fair play rules). Fortunately, we can be reasonably sure the player wouldn’t agree but one never knows…

      They should set it at a billion.

    13. I see an opportunity for a local entertainment journalist to get Guardiola’s opinions on music and other media. Sure your editor would go for it.

  2. Hey, what are views on the club inviting the imprisoned Israeli to El Clasic? There is a petition circulating that would like the club to not extend this invite. My view is that, even with FCB, politics is politics and sport is sport. Dude’s a cule, has been in prison for 5 years, would kill to see a match. Why not? I don’t know that it means the club has taken a side in the conflict, as some are suggesting.

    1. Clarification: The club did not invite the Israeli soldier, but rather responded favorably to a tequezt tbat he attend. The club has issued the same response to Palestinian requests for El Ckasic.

    2. he was not in prison for five years. he was captured, tortured and held hostage for 5 years. very very different.

    3. Lol what about Palestinians ?! imprisoned legally or captured, tortured…
      Greetings from Iran !

    4. true that, it’s a flashpoint. and if you dont have enough cookie to share with everyone…i think the club should stay away from this one.

  3. This article looks great, Linda. I don’t have ttime to read it now but have saved the page so I can read it offline tonight, and I look forward to it. It’s great to see another mod taking such an interest in the youth.

    1. Thanks! Admittedly my knowledge of the kids isn’t anywhere close to yours – please do point out any embarrassing missteps I made. 😀

  4. Linda,

    Great piece on the NexGen. Thanks so much for the info and your opinion on the game you attended at White Hart Lane. It’s one of the stadiums I’d like to see a game at. What was your impression? I know it wasn’t even close to capacity, but how was it set up? Were the seats right on top of the field? Was it in good shape? Any insight would be much appreciated. Again, great writing.

    1. Thank you! I’m going to be blunt here, and no offense is intended to Spurs fans. I know they’re looking to build a new stadium, and in some places you can kind of see why. (Human-operated turnstiles. First time I’ve seen that at a Premier League ground.)

      It’s an intimate stadium – very English, not huge, steep stands, fans close to the pitch. For the NextGen game, they only opened the West and South stands, and those were both reasonably full.

      A league game at White Hart Lane would probably be a great experience – I imagine the way the stadium is set up is good for atmosphere. I hope you get to see a game there. 😀

  5. Sorry for “hijacking” your great article Linda.

    This video is funny, about promoting Chinese Autumn Moon festival; traditionally celebrated with eating moon cake. Listen to our players trying to speak “I like mooncake” and “Moon cake is delicious” in mandarin made me laughing. bwahahhaha

    1. Thank you for that link – what an adorable video!

      I have to say, Cesc and Alexis don’t do too badly with ‘happy mid-autumn festival’. ‘Moon cake is delicious’ isn’t too badly pronounced either. The rest are incomprehensible. 😀

    2. Yummm…mooncakes 😛

      Lucky me live only a few bus stops away from Chinatown, guess I’ll go there this weekend. Happy Mooncake Festival to all 😀

    3. Yep, the Chinatown is about twenty minutes on a tram from where I live..I will be there this saturday!

  6. My awesome day today:

    Because I’m in my lazy period, I’m taking the bus from the train station, rather than cycling to work. So yesterday I get a message via Twitter, from a fellow asking if it was me that he saw on a particular bus. Yes, I replied, say “Yo” next time. Turns out he’s from Barcelona, and has a season ticket. He’s in Chicago for a time, and told me of a Chicago Penya, where I will be watching the match on Saturday. (No, I didn’t know about it. Crazy, right?) Up to 50 people watching matches. Woot!

    Chance occurrences are crazy things. Had I not been rocking an FCB fleece, and had he not been following the rantings of some crazy cule on Twitter, and had I not been being lazy and taking the train earlier than I usually do …. none of this would have happened. Hilarious!

    1. Sounds stalk-ish and awesome at the same time 😀 Your lazy day still seems like a lot of work though – getting up EARLIER to take the train?

    2. That’s awesome! Wish we had a Indy Penya where 50 Cules watched the game. Enjoy being with fellow Cules and soak up the atmosphere. Small world. It really is! Oh, and I don’t blame you for lazyness. I know what Chitown is like in the fall. Not great cycling weather. They don’t call it the Windy City for nothing!

  7. I was lucky enough that they showed a live match and a repeat of this match a couple of weeks ago.
    And I commented on it too. So I’ll just copy and paste it;

    I was impressed with Samper. He is really

    Wasn’t too impressed with the rest though
    especially the African kids.
    They had poor first touches and don’t really
    have the tiki taka in them. They went for
    power and athletism instead of slow build
    up play.

    Only Embwelle and Adama impressed me
    from the lot.
    Thankfully they had a lot of pace and made
    good use of it especially Adama who was
    flying on the right wing time and time

    The other notable mentions are;
    Quessada or Quintilla. Can’t remember
    exactly – LB
    Sandro – lethal finisher from Canary Islands

    The 2nd goal where the goalkeeper was actually the one with the assist reminded very much of a goal at Ajax around 15-16 years ago. Van der Sar passed/kicked the ball to lead a counter attack and it was scored by either Kluivert or one of the Nigerians, Kanu or Banbagida or something.

    1. Wasn’t too impressed with the rest though
      especially the African kids.
      They had poor first touches and don’t really
      have the tiki taka in them.

      Feel like we were watching different matches. Thought the unit was terrific and not sure why you’re dividing the team between African and non-African players? They are all growing up together in the system and there’s terrific sympathy of understanding between them as a whole.

      Bagnack is tremendously promising at CB. Very composed especially for missing so much time from injury. Love his feel on the ball for a CB. Godswill is simply playing out of position at RB-he should be moved to CB but there’s no room right now at that position. Ebwelle-he’s just a classic raw young player. Adama-he’s brilliant. His technique on the wing is outstanding.

      For me one of the biggest questions with this cohort of talent and it’s ability to play “tiki-taka” (by which I assume you’re referring to the current mode of play on the first team) is actually Samper.

      By skill set Samper very much fits the mold. People frequently compare him to Xavi. But Samper would still need to undergo a significant shift in position to orchestrate the current “tiki taka” model in the future. He plays as a a deep pivot – deep to pressure. As brilliant as he is what he’s not getting as much experience in is orchestrating in compressed spaces – it’s that ability which makes Xavi (and Iniesta) so brilliant. It’s what differentiates Xavi from say Pirlo or X.Alonso.

      Can Samper make that transition? That’s still to be decided. Many midfielders have made that transition (including Xavi and even Iniesta) But that’s a major open question in FCB’s ability to continue playing this current model in the future. If in the future the best midfielder is a deep pivot the entire system will change.

      This is part of why people remark on this NextGen team seeming to play balls “long” or differently than the first team’s
      “patient” build up. Play for this unit runs through the deep pivot in Samper not through a midfielder playing higher up like Xavi. Part of what people are seeing is that difference – the difference in positioning and style of play between Xavi and Samper.

      If anything that to me is the larger question “looming” over this generation of talent – much more so than the “African” players playing “tiki taka.”

    2. “As brilliant as he is what he’s not getting as much experience in is orchestrating in compressed spaces – it’s that ability which makes Xavi (and Iniesta) so brilliant. It’s what differentiates Xavi from say Pirlo or X.Alonso.”

      I was saying this to my friends when we were watching the Euros and they were going ape over Pirlo like the English commentators. I would also add that this is what makes Xavi (and of course Iniesta) harder to shut down when being marked like Pirlo was by Xavi in the final.

  8. This is a really terrific piece Linda and I strongly support the them your touching on: the importance of development and learning over “winning” even in a tournament like NextGen.

    The FCB teams in NextGen both this season and last season have been significantly younger than the competition. But they’ve still more than held their own.

    What I really like about the generation of youngsters playing in the NextGen/Juvenil A is the diversity in the template (and I’ll include Dongu & Grimaldo in that cohort).

    There’s a classic La Masia player in Samper anchoring the side. But then he’s contrasted with a player like Grimaldo-who has the La Masia skill sets but in a very different spot on the pitch then we’re typically strong in. The template is further enriched by a player like Adama who has such a brilliant package of technical skill and explosiveness or Sandro who has the making of a 9.

    They are still raw as they are so young but there’s qualities there that differ from the current first team that I like a great deal. Unlike Eusebio’s B team they still play the FCB model – but their skill sets also have them interpreting it differently.

    There just so much promising talent in this generation. But a player I’m very excited about is Bagnack. Samper has been placing people on notice for a few seasons now. Adama just exploded last season. Bagnack for me has been a real surprise this season. He missed roughly 18 months due to injury and coming back he’s looked remarkably composed at CB. It’s a position we’ve struggled some in developing talent for and he’s a player with a very interesting skill set. Hopefully he continues to blossom.

    As Linda points out that’s really the purpose of things like NextGen.

  9. Really nice read, Linda! I’m happy to hear that the attendance at the game you went to was so good. I really hope this tournament can keep up the momentum and entice even more clubs to send teams. Unfortunately for NextGen, UEFA has decided to start their own U19 Champions League, which will be in direct competition.

    Also, as Euler mentioned above, I think it is important to point out that the Barcelona players in this tournament are on average a year or two younger than their opponents. This is a deliberate decision on the club’s part. They have a policy of challenging the youth to play against a higher level of opponent. Sometimes the kids will fail, but they will always learn from it and gain experience.

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