FC Barcelona announced on Thursday that Eusebio Sacristan has accepted a one-year renewal of his contract that will keep him at the club as coach of Barça B until the end of the 2014-15 season. This seems like a good time to take a look at how the youngsters have done this year.
Barça B played their last game of the season on Saturday and finished in 3rd spot in the Segunda table, with 66 points, behind promoted teams Eibar and Deportivo La Coruna. Normally this would be a playoff spot to put them in contention for promotion, but of course the rules forbid a B team from playing in the same division as their parent team. Still, third place is a very strong finish to a season in which the quality of the team’s play varied significantly. Indeed, at one point the B team drifted down almost into the relegation zone, prompting the then-VP Josep Bartomeu to remark that it wouldn’t be “a tragedy” if they were relegated, much to the fury of many in this space.
So how does one judge the success of this season? A third-place finish would seem like an excellent result to most, wouldn’t it? However, we must also take into consideration that this is a B team, the stated purpose of which is to develop youth players, to give them the skills and the experience they need for their adult careers, and to provide them with opportunities to prove they have what it takes to make the first team.
Eusebio started the season with a much younger group than has been the case for the last few seasons, as several of the older players left or were promoted, and a large crop of youngsters from Juvenil A joined as either full or partial promotions. There were predictable growing pains as the team struggled to gel on the pitch, and results were less than brilliant. In one especially grim stretch, they lost 7 out of 8 games. The lack of cohesion on the field was only exacerbated by a rash of injuries that kept several key players out for weeks. The one bright spot was the 3-0 demolition of RM Castilla* in the mini-Clasico–unfortunately they turned the tables on the return leg and beat Barça B by 3-1.
After the Christmas break, results began to improve, helped immensely by the return of LB Alejandro Grimaldo after recovering from a leg injury that kept him out of action for a full year. Centre-backs “Macky Frank” Bagnack and Edgar Ie also returned to full action and formed a very solid pairing at the core of the defense. Forwards Adama Traore and Munir el-Haddadi were both still technically registered as Juvenil A players, but spent most weekends with the B team. As they were trusted with more minutes on the field, their performances continued to improve, and the goals started to come. With players like Sergi Samper, Javi Espinosa, and Edu Bedia taking control of the midfield, the B team embarked on a 9-week unbeaten run (7 W, 2 D) and looked set for a top ten finish at the very worst. The Segunda league was extremely close this year, with only 20 points separating champion Eibar from 18th-placed Alaves, so every game, every point was vital. Despite the odd setback, the B team diligently worked their way up in the standings to finish a more-than-respectable 3rd with the youngest team in the league. As a manager, Eusebio has come under a lot of criticism over the last few years, not least from myself, but this result is something he can be justifiably proud of. Eusebio will never be known as a tactical genius (some of his in-game substitutes are downright baffling), but to his credit he appears to have learned from some of his past mistakes (such as indulging in outright favouritism) and IMO has improved as a manager. I won’t say I’m happy that he was renewed for another season, but I think the current B generation is so packed with talent that they would succeed with almost any manager.
Who’s on First?
The most disappointing aspect of this season for me, and most likely for the players as well, was the scarcity of call-ups to the first team. B players were called up to practice with the first team fairly often, but only 4 players were actually called up for games–Dongou, Adama, Patric, and Sergi Gomez–and these received a grand total of 72 minutes of playing time in all competitions between them. Dongou accounted for most of that time. This is in stark contrast to the 1432 minutes B players received last season and 2298 the season before (Guardiola’s last). To me, this represents a failure on the part of the club, a waste of valuable resources, and an error on the part of the first team manager Tata Martino. To be fair to Martino, he clearly started out with good intentions. Dongou and Adama both impressed him in preseason, and Bagnack was even taken along on the ill-fated Asian tour. But as a new manager from “outside” the club, Tata was under huge pressure to impose his vision on his players and to get results, and any plans he may have had to give youth players a look-in were put on the backburner. It is understandable, but unfortunate, since the best opportunities for B players come in the early stages of the Copa del Rey and the group rounds of the Champions’ League. Tata was having an excellent run of results at the time and apparently didn’t want to bring any unknown elements into the mix. Then in the second half of the season when results dropped and injuries began to pile up, it seemed like he had discarded the option of calling up B players completely. This led to the ridiculous situation of playing Busquets as a CB when Puyol, Pique, and Bartra were all out injured, instead of calling up Sergi Gomez or Bagnack as a replacement. Busquets is one of the most talented players in the world, but a CB he is not.
Still, it isn’t really fair to blame Tata entirely for this apparent lack of trust in the youth. There were plenty of factors that need to be considered, many of which were out of Tata’s control. He was hired to manage the first team and to win trophies–and the pressure he was under to do so should not be understated. He was from outside the club and did not come through the youth system as a player or coach, like Pep and Tito did, so he was not inculcated in the mythos of “La Masia”. He did not have the benefit of having watched the B team players develop over the past several years and knowing their strengths and weaknesses. And of course, Eusebio was having his own challenges with injured players and inconsistent results and may well have resisted letting his most important players be called away. We will never really know all the reasons that so little use was made of the youth players, but I can’t help but feel that things could have been managed better. 72 minutes falls very short of what I would have hoped for.
Bojanization and You
At the end of every Barça B season the question on everybody’s lips (well, on mine, at least) is “Who will be promoted?” As of this writing, only two players have been officially promoted: GK Jordi Masip, who will be the 2nd or 3rd choice keeper for the first team next season, and midfielder Denis Suarez, who will most likely be sent out on loan (although you never know, Lucho might like to have a look at him first). Several of the senior players are at the end of their contracts and will not be renewed or have been offered renewal with the B team only and have chosen to leave. Of the players left, the most talented ones are too young to be considered for promotion yet and the older ones are just plain not good enough for the first team. What does all this have to do with Bojan, you say? Well, there are some who say that if a player has excelled in the B team he should be promoted regardless of his age, that age is just a number and if a player is talented enough he will succeed in the first team regardless. Personally I feel this view is shortsighted and does a disservice to young players. Talent is very important, of course, but talent will only get a player so far if he has not been given the proper tools and training to make the most of it. A young player needs regular playing time to gain experience and develop decision-making skills on the pitch. Why promote an 18-year-old only to leave him sitting on the bench or playing the last 5 minutes of a game when he could be playing every week on the B team or be loaned out to another team to experience different challenges? Yes, Messi was promoted at 17, but Messi is a unique case and it would be a mistake to judge anyone else’s situation by the same standards.
A better example is Bojan Krkic. In his youth career, Bojan scored something like 1000 goals (I can’t be bothered to look it up, but it’s somewhere around there). He was the Golden Boy, the Next Big Thing, and he debuted with the first team at 17 years & 19 days, the youngest ever. His “people” pushed for early promotion, and since the first team was in a bit of a bind with injuries, the club agreed. Expectations were sky high, and for a while things went very well. He played a lot, he scored some, it looked like the world was his oyster. But at some point the pressures of being expected to always play at the highest level took their toll. Bojan was called up to the Spanish NT squad for the 2008 Euros, but he withdrew, reportedly due to having a panic attack. Over the next 3 seasons Bojan struggled with inconsistent performances, sometimes showing flashes of the old brilliance, but often looking lost and uncertain. Eventually he was largely relegated to the bench. His career has never really recovered, and he is still only 23. Some might say that Bojan just wasn’t good enough and wouldn’t have made it at Barça anyway, but I disagree. Bojan was and is a very talented player. But as a youth player he was so overhyped and pushed forward as the next homegrown star that it became almost impossible for him to live up to that. If he had been left to develop more slowly, either in the B team or being loaned out to another club, he may well have matured into a very different player. This is why exciting young players like Adama, Samper, and Munir need to be managed so carefully. They are all potentially first-team material, but promoting them now after only one season with the B team would be a huge mistake.
Revelation of the Season: Midfielder Denis Suarez. Perhaps not really a revelation, as we knew he was very good when we bought him from Manchester City, but he been one of the stand-out players this season. He has a great touch, reads the game well, and is just a very intelligent player all-around. A very good buy for us. Runner-Up: Munir el-Haddadi. Technically still a Juvenil A player, he didn’t get any minutes with the B team until quite late in the season, but he had already shone in tournaments, including Juvenil A’s victory in UEFA’s Youth League, in which he was the top scorer. At only 18, Munir is still a raw talent, but he is fast, technically skilled, and has a real nose for the goal.
Flop of the Season: Winger Dani Nieto. Although he made plenty of appearances, especially in the first half of the season, and scored 6 goals, most observers seem to agree that he just does not have the quality a Barcelona player needs. His first touch is poor, and his link-up play is lacking. He spent much of the spring warming the bench. Runner-Up: Ilie Sanchez. Sadly, the Barça B captain had a poor season, mainly due to being played out of his natural position as a defensive midfielder. He was forced to cover for injured CBs, and it was pretty clear that it was not a good fit.
Comeback of the Season: Edgar Ie, who has been almost permanently injured for two seasons, and in between knocks struggled to find playing time. It wasn’t until the second half of the season that he began to feature regularly, and showed his quality as both a rock-solid CB and a marauding RB. I would love it if Lucho took a closer look at this player in preseason. Runner-Up: Jean-Marie Dongou. The striker went through a dull stretch in mid-season when he was not scoring or playing particularly well, and was overshadowed by up-and-coming talents Adama Traore and Munir el-Haddadi, but by the spring he seemed to have regained his confidence and was raising havoc on the pitch again. He finished the season with 9 goals.
Season MVP: GK Jordi Masip. Eusebio’s first-choice keeper, Masip had an excellent season bailing out the often leaky defense in front of him. He has looked assured and confident in goal, and has earned his promotion to the first team. I hope he gets some real opportunities to shine and can help Ter Stegen learn how a Barça keeper needs to play.
Most Likely to Make the First Team Someday: Adama Traore, Munir el-Haddadi, Jean-Marie Dongou, Sergi Samper, Alejandro Grimaldo, Macky Frank Bagnack. I would love to add Edgar Ie to this list, but somehow I doubt it will happen.
Most Likely to be Sold for Pennies, Then Bought Back for Millions: Macky Frank Bagnack. Because that’s what we do, sell CBs.
Most Likely to Have a Solid Career as a Second-Tier Player With No Pretensions of Grandeur: Sergi Gomez (22). There are reports that Almeria may be interested in taking him on loan.
Best Player Leaving on a Free Transfer: Midfielder Javier Espinosa (21), whose contract expires this month, reportedly has offers from Valencia and Villarreal. Criminally underused in the previous two seasons, he did become a regular starter this year. Latest word is that FCB offered him a 2-year renewal with the B team, but he unsurprisingly turned it down. I wish him luck wherever he ends up.
Most Likely to Be Forgotten About Completely: Agostinho Ca. Bought at the same time as Edgar Ie, his time at Barça has been blighted by multiple injuries, and he has only ever played a handful of minutes. Currently out on loan to Girona, his contract expires in 2016, and is not likely to be extended.
So was this a successful season for the B team? I think even the harshest critics of Eusebio will have to agree that it has been. Third place in the league with the youngest squad is an excellent result whichever way you look at it. Some players may not have had all the playing time they deserve, but it was a drastic improvement over the previous few seasons. With former Barça B coach Luis Enrique now in charge of the first team, I think next season will provide a lot more opportunities for these talented players to develop.
*Speaking of RM Castilla, they finished the league in 20th spot, and have been relegated to the Segunda B, taking with them former Barça B player Kiko Femenia. You remember Kiko, don’t you? We bought him for the B team from (also newly-relegated) Hercules to great fanfare and talk of future opportunities with the first team. Pep Guardiola called him up in preseason, played him once or twice, and was unimpressed. He continued to impress no-one over the next two seasons, then left in a snit claiming the club had never given him any attention or support. Zubi was famously quoted as saying the club had done everything for Kiko except “play the football”.
A few updates, mostly via the reliable Gerard Romero:
Javi Espinosa will join Valencia this week. He rejected offers from Villarreal and Porto.
Captain Ilie Sanchez is heading to Germany to join 2nd division team Munchen 1860.
Carles Planas has offers from Spain, England and Germany and will leave the club.
Sergi Gómez and Patric Gabarron have offers but are considering whether to stay one more year at Barca B or transfer out.
And from rac1: Denis Suarez will join Sevilla on loan next season, as part of the (as yet unconfirmed) transfer of Sevilla midfielder Rakitic.