As many of you know, it’s crunch time for our next generation of La Masia jewels. The contracts of Thiago Alcantara, Jeffren Suarez, Gai Assulin, and Jonathan Dos Santos who happen to be our best prospects at the Barca Athletic level ALL expire this spring. That means they can either resign professional contracts with Barca or leave on a free transfer. As can be expected, the (mostly EPL) vultures are out and circling. With elections being postponed until June, it seems that Guardiola and Txiki will have to force their hands before the new administration takes over. Adding to the tension is the proximity of a free transfer giving our canteranos’ agents a significant upper hand in negotiations. As much as it hurts, we will likely not be able to keep all of our guys. So, let’s have a little discussion about which ones will/should stay and which ones will/should go. Mug shots and profiles of our enfants terrible follow:
Position: Left Winger/Media Punta
Probably the least ready to contribute of all the kids, he might well be the one with the most upside. This is a kid who we have heard about for years. He has been touted as the next Masia superstar for quite some time. He is a natural winger with pace, close control, good crossing ability, and dribbling. Not a natural scorer, he has a little more Ronaldinho in him than Messi, alternating using his pace to escape defenders with using Ronny inspired flicks and trickery. Physically, he has a similar build to a Standard Mark 0 Masia winger just like Pedro and Jeffren: 5’7-5’8 but quick as hell. His close control, speed, and ability on the flanks are rare commodities in football today. He has the package to be a starter for years. However, the biggest knock on him so far has been his underwhelming performances during his pre-season and Copa Del Rey cameos with the A-Team. Furthermore, he has been injury plagued during the last two seasons, something which has hindered his development. Nevertheless, those who have seen him play in Barca Athletic have occasionally seen a devastating force that can tear other teams’ flanks apart. He is currently behind Henry, Pedro, Bojan, and Jeffren in the pecking order so if he stays on board it will be to play in Barca Athletic for at least another two years. He is a long term investment that many other teams are also willing to make. A kid with natural de-stabilizing ability who nevertheless needs several years to develop into a starting caliber player. The question is: are we willing to make the investment and is he willing to stay humble and patient and keep developing in Barca Athletic or will the lure of playing time in another league and more money make him leave?
Position: Center-Mid/ Attacking Mid
Nationality: Spanish (raised)/Italian (born)/Brazilian (parents and infancy)/OMG I don’t even know
Probably my personal favorite of the bunch. He is a center-midfielder who fits a profile unlike any midfielder currently on our roster. He is not a classic four prospect. The comparisons most used is a young Deco. A fearless, relentless midfielder who is not afraid to try the impossible dribble or pass (sometimes resulting in goals and sometimes in counterattacks against his team), Thiago was criticized most commonly in his younger days for his lack of commitment to defending and improving his off the ball movement. However, he has overcome those deficiencies and is now as relentless in pressuring the ball as he is in attacking and was praised by Luis Milla, the U-19 Spanish NT coach for his improvement in both areas. Oh yeah, national teams. He was the engine behind the 2008 U-17 Euro Cup champion Spain U-17 squad, scoring and assisting in the final. At the 2009 Copa Del Atlántico (a smaller Euro competition) he was the pichichi of the champion Spain U-18 squad as a midfielder and finished behind only Sergio Canales in the MVP race. He is more Iniesta than Xavi or Cesc. A guy who wants the ball at his feet and who relies more on technique than positioning at this point of his career, Thiago combines Brazilian flair with Spanish style passing. He has a remarkable passing range and great close control. Not the biggest guy, he makes up for his size deficiency with speed and grit. He is a “descarado” (shameless) player who is not afraid of competing with the big boys and has been proving it with good performances in the Gamper Cup and the first leg Copa loss to Sevilla this season. Like all the kids, he has much to improve on still but I think his confidence compares to that of Pedrito and Busquets. He was the youngest player in Barca Athletic at 16 and 17 years old and his development has seemingly not been halted by a few lengthy injuries. He missed the first team pre-season due to being injured and is currently working to make up the ground he lost to Jonathan for first team minutes. His younger brother Rafa (three years younger), another attacking midfielder who differs from his brother by being a lefty, was last season’s Juvenil B star and has recently re-signed with Barca and is currently one of the stars of Juvenil A.
The best #4 (the Xavi/Tempo Setter position) prospect in the pipeline at this time, he is the classic Barca center-midfielder. Great technique and positioning for his age, cannon of a long range shot, and excellent passing. After a string of good performances with the first team during pre-season, JDS has been the equivalent of last season’s version of Pedro. He goes back and forth between Barca Athletic and the A-Team, is a relative frequent fixture at A-Team practices, and gets the occasional, easy game, garbage time or Copa Del Rey roll out. What makes this all the more impressive is that despite being a year older than Thiago, prior to this season he had never even played for Barca Athletic, making the jump to a part time first teamer/ Athletic player straight from Juvenil A. During his performances with the A-Team he has exhibited remarkable maturity in his positioning, shown an extensive passing range, great use of the one touch pass, good ball control, and evidenced his powerful shot (he is also reputed to be a very good set piece specialist). He certainly was not intimidated by the big boys and repeated invitations to practice means that Guardiola is happy with what he sees. Remember that Pedro and Busi started out in the same way. He is not as daring (or reckless) as Thiago but he seems like a smart tempo setter who, if he stays humble and hungry, learning from his brother’s mistakes, could go quite far indeed. Keep in mind that his position is the hardest one to play in Barca and it takes years of dedication to grab the starting role. Look at how many games it took for Xavi to get to where he is and how a once in a generation great like Iniesta is still learning every season. A lot will depend on Jonathan’s determination and ability to learn. He is different from Thiago in that to me he seems like a deeper lying playmaker. He is not as aggressive, flashy or daring but at the same time he is more tactically and positionally sound at this time. Despite the Gio Disaster, Jonathan seems to have his head on straight and by all indications seems inclined to repay the confidence Pep has shown in him.
Nationality: Venezuelan (birth)/Spanish (raised)
Jeffren is a pure natural winger with devastating pace who, similarly to Pedro, can play on both wings. We have seen him go in and out of the first team for the past two seasons. He is distinguished for his directness and de-stabilizing ability on the wings and in space. Besides being a good crosser, he also has an above average nose for goals given his position. Physically similar to Pedro and Gai, Jeffren may be the fastest of the bunch. Arriving at la Masia at 16, Jeffren has paid his dues. He put in two years in Juvenil A before becoming an important part of the Barca Athletic Team that Pep took from the third division into Segunda B. Pep coached him full time for a full season and frequently invited him to practice with the first team last season alongside Pedro. Thus, it’s safe to assume that Pep knows what he has in his hands with Jeffren. Despite impressing in two straight pre-seasons and performing well during his limited appearances, Jeffren’s progression has seemingly hit a pot hole with Messi, Henry, Iniesta, Bojan, and now Pedro taking up minutes in the wings. However, he does bring speed, explosion, and directness that under certain situations can be a great asset to bring off the bench as we saw against Estudiantes when he nearly turned the tide after replacing Henry, destroying the exhausted Estudiantes right fullback and creating constant danger from the wing. It seemed like he had his break out performance and more appearances would follow but, sadly, a knee injury in the friendly played in Kuwait right after the Club World Cup halted his progress and our exit from the Copa del Rey even further diminished his potential playing time this season. Being 22 and having patiently come up through the ranks, it is understandable that he is a little anxious regarding playing time. Can this team use two winger super-subs? Prior to this season, Jeffren had been just as impressive as Pedro is his first team appearances but now has been upstaged by his Masia classmate who has become an established squad member with the goals to prove it. Can he still hack out a place in the squad?
My take on how to evaluate them:
How good a cantera is should be measured by how much it contributes to the club’s first team. It’s not necessarily about producing superstars year after year but about producing players that positively contribute to your team’s success. Thus, we need to ask what these players would add to the team during this season and the next few ones. Every team needs squad and role players. The best case scenario is to have budding superstars who can be squad players for a while as they continue their progression. Iniesta and Messi at the start of their first team careers to me are great examples of this. However, this is all subject to what the team needs, now and in the near future. Therefore, my first big factor to consider is: what do they bring to the table as players that can potentially add to our resources?
We must also consider that this is an election year and the usual vote hunting promises and transfers will likely happen. For instance, there is a good chance that Rosell may make a real push after Cesc if he wins. As much as we like to pound our collective chest in the face of the world and proclaim ourselves as the paragon of virtue in the footballing world for using so much homegrown talent, the truth is that this is a relatively new thing for us. Even the 03-06 teams that brought Barca back from the Gaspart dark ages were composed mainly of imports and foreign signings like Ronaldinho, Deco, Gio, Marquez, Guily, Larsson, Edmilson, and Eto’o with only Valdes, Puyol, and Xavi as consistent first teamers (no, Oleguer does not count 😀 ). Hell, Xavi was sometimes left on the bench which now seems like blasphemy. Can the politicians hold off the urge to make a big splash so as to make their very own mark on the Pep Team? That’s the second big factor for me. Would Rosell buy Cesc just to make a splash when there is no starting place in the lineup for him while Xavi and Iniesta are healthy? Will our four canteranos believe that whoever they next administration is will continue to believe in them and give them a shot instead of trying to out-spend Flo Flo Dollaz?
The truth is that nurturing and developing canteranos requires a lot of patience and dedication. Evidence? Look at how often we blow our tops criticizing Busquets and/or Bojan. If they don’t play and don’t make mistakes then they will never develop. It’s a fine balance between long term and short term. Thankfully Pep apparently has more patience than we do. I also think we have been spoiled by Messi. It is not normal for somebody to be the best player in the world at 21 years old. It’s more of a once in a generation type thing, you know? Busquets is 21 years old and we expect him to be a Fernando Redondo or a Yaya right out of the box. He’s well on his damn way to get there but these things take time. Look at how long it took for Xavi and Iniesta to become undisputed starters and they are in their own rights once in a generation greats as well. It is more reasonable to expect a progression along the lines of Pedro who is only now becoming a solid contributor at 22 and even then mostly coming out of the bench. However, that’s us as fans. The problem is that the players have also been spoiled.
Watching guys like Cesc and Messi make it to the big times (and the big bucks) while being so young also impacts younger players. These examples allow their agents to exert even more pressure on the players and their families to convince them that they are too good to be sitting on the bench or paying their dues in the Segunda B with Barca Athletic. They often don’t understand that these guys are the exceptions to the rule. Furthermore, the EPL’s propensity to give out professional contracts like candy to the kids of the world further encourages them to go after the money. Countless kids who could develop into excellent players have had their talents wasted by being convinced that they are better than they truly are. Thus, my third factor to consider is whether the kids have the humility and the dedication to take their time learning and developing without the big publicity and money that comes with a starting spot. Iniesta and Pedro to me are shining examples of what this means. They shut up, worked hard, played wherever they were asked to, did not complain about playing time, learned from their teammates, and eventually they got their just reward. Not everybody has those qualities (see Gio Dos Santos for instance). Do these four guys and their families have it?
That’s it. I’ve got my opinion on who makes it and who doesn’t but I’ll save it for a follow up post. In the mean time, let’s hear what you guys think. Do we give JDS and/or Thiago their shots or should we just go for the sure thing and try to buy Cesc? Is Gai a victim of Pedro and Messi or should we move Pedrito to the starting left winger role when Henry leaves and give Gai a shot at the super sub winger position? Should we let Jeffren leave or will he step up in the remainder of the season and prove himself a worthy contributor? What do you guys and gals say?
As a bonus, here are some randomly picked clips of the aforementioned kiddies from the youtubes. Feel free to search for more clips if you want to.