Bla, bla, Masia whinewhine.
Because the subtle approach hasn’t worked, let’s take a more direct one:
Nobody who played on Barça B is fully ready for promotion right now.
This is an odd time in the maturation process of a youth class, where the first team is really good and the players on the come aren’t quite there yet. There is angst and distress in culer land over a cake that people want to eat, but it’s still baking. And dammit, it’s the fault of the coach and the board, because we’re hungry NOW!
There is a lot of worry about Luis Enrique, concerns voiced about whether he is able to properly manage youth players. He watches B, has coached B, understands youth football and how to bring along a prospect. He’s also pretty good and evaluating talent. Because history has a way of smearing reality, it’s worth a look back, to youth prospects under other coaches.
Pep Guardiola: Used them, but all coaches do. Who stuck? Pedro and Busquets, players who would have succeeded under any coach. All the others, the Jeffrens, Tellos, Dos Santoses, etc are gone — not because they were poorly managed, but because they weren’t good enough. Bojan Krkic? Gone. Fontas? Gone. Gai “Next Messi” Assulin? Gone. Thiago Alcantara was good enough, but we all know how that story went. There is a persistent belief that Guardiola was some sort of Youth Whisperer, or that the club promoted young’uns and didn’t buy players under his tenure. That just ain’t true. The first Treble team was built pretty much as the second one was, via a big summer influx of the right transfers. The team isn’t buying players just because. It doesn’t strike me that the commitment to youth and upward mobility has diminished in any way. But the team has needs, and the academy folks aren’t ready to meet those expectations. How do we know? Because if they were ready, they would be on the first team.
Tito Vilanova: Only Sergi Roberto and Jordi Masip stuck. Nobody else was good enough to make it, but again, he used B teamers in the pre-season, giving them a good, long look
Tata Martino: Cuenca came up, had some pretty rotten injury luck and was later moved along.
Every Barça coach has given time and looks to youth products in the preseason, Martino included. We haven’t seen that many promotions or successes because those folks weren’t good enough. As laudable as Jonathan Dos Santos’ desire to succeed at Barça was, he wasn’t going to make it here. Nolito is tearing it up at Celta, after moving on from Barça. The Liga is packed with Masia graduates, most of whom get to play against the current first team and say, “Oh yeah … NOW I remember why I left.”
But again, it’s the danger of letting a once-in-a-lifetime class define a breed. When I hear people wondering whether Enrique is going to be a good manager of youth players, the first reply is that no first-team boss is a good manager of youth players. He isn’t supposed to be. A first-team boss is supposed to assemble the players necessary to enable his team to be the best that it can. He brings youth players in, and they’re either good enough or they aren’t. There’s no magic there.
Is some special handling required for a player who is almost good enough, assuming there is space on the squad? For sure. But that player has to be ready enough to step into, or be close to stepping into, a world-beating team. Those don’t come along all that often, and minutes should be earned, not given as some sort of Masia birthright. Busquets and Pedro weren’t charity cases. They were good enough to make it into the Barça first team. None of the others who left were and that’s why they’re gone, with the exception of Thiago Alcantara.
Bartra is getting gobs of time this season, and he ain’t exactly setting the world on fire. Whose fault is that? Moving a little deeper in the pile, Enrique is on record as saying that the B team wasn’t good enough last season, and it’s true. They weren’t, despite the Masiaflation that is going on. But let’s take the folks on the cusp on a case-by-case basis.
Grimaldo: Massive upside as Jordi Alba Jr. IF Adriano moves on to Roma or somewhere, it’s not hard to imagine Grimaldo would get a promotion, but culers would have to be patient because he isn’t ready to be Alba Jr. His future would be Copa matches, and early-round Champions League efforts. If Adriano was to leave, Mathieu would be the injury sub, etc. Grimaldo is good enough to warrant care and feeding, and if he leaves Barça at all it will be on “loan,” in the context of the current sell-with-buyback system.
(Aside: I like the sell-with-buyback. You get a player off the books, and if he isn’t good enough he’s gone. Sold. If he is, you build in a low buyback, say selling him at 8m and buying back at 10. The team that develops him gets a little something for their trouble, and Barça gets back a fully developed player. There was screaming about Deulofeu going for 6m, but look at his buyback. If he develops into the player his potential suggests, 9m would be dirt cheap. If he doesn’t, but club got rid of a clunker for 6m.
A loan is a problem because it comes with expectations of a return. And that leads to a Krkic, Keirrison or Afellay, where a player is on the books, but there is no intention of bringing him back. That sucks, for the player and the club. The sell-with-buyback is an excellent option, if you ask me, not that anyone did.)
Adama Traore: Not even close to ready for the Barça first team, though might be eventually. Has many of the same problems that Deulofeu has. He also needs lots of playing time under a strong coach, at a team that can afford to give him that playing time, with all the attendant risks. Rumor is Liverpool, but I don’t see Traore getting enough time at Liverpool, though it would certainly be more than he would get at Barça.
Sergi Samper: He’s almost ready, but staying at Barça has the potential to hinder his development. He, among all the almost-readys needs a loan to a good, mid-table Liga side, one good enough to not turn turtle when the top clubs come to town, cowering on the rocks with 11 behind the ball. Keeping him at Barça with the midfield the team has in place, is madness. Iniesta, Busquets, Mascherano, Rakiic, Turan, Rafinha. Samper isn’t going to displace any of those players in a meritocracy. Send him on loan. Man, would Rayo be an excellent location. Enrique knows what he has, and how talented Samper is. He also knows how good he is in the first-team context, because he gets to watch him in training every day.
Munir El-Haddadi: He’s in the exact same situation as Samper, and needs the same thing. Only Masia egocentrism would suggest that keeping Munir is better than loaning him so that he can get the playing time that he needs to develop. He is capable of starting for many a Liga side and as he gets stronger and more knowledgeable, expect him to realize his immense up side. Sitting on the bench watching Suarez and Neymar isn’t going to help him.
Sandro Ramirez: A keeper until Munir is ready, then move him on unless he somehow blossoms. It isn’t that he isn’t talented enough to keep, but rather that a fully-realized Munir will leave him in the shade. But for now he has seized his place in the first team, barring anything unforeseen with the anticipated Pedro migration. Sandro is also what the team needs, which is a Suarez-type forward to allow for subs and rotation, in addition to Rafinha being slid up the pitch.
Gerard Gumbau: Nope. No way. He just isn’t good enough, and it seems that Enrique wanted him on this U.S. tour to make his mind up fully in that regard. But ya gotta play somebody in a friendly, so why not Gumbau? The idea that Enrique prefers him to Samper is laughable, and not just because they’re different players. For the first team, Enrique would prefer neither of them. But Samper will be back with Barça after he leaves. Not Gumbau.
Alen Halilovic: A step or two behind Samper, but in the same approximate boat in that he is a HUGE talent that needs to, in the words of his countryman Ivan Rakitic, “grow as a player and a person.” That requires playing time, and it almost doesn’t matter where, because Halilovic will get playing time almost anywhere except that select group of top-tier teams. Like almost all of the others on this list, he’s too good for Barça B, but not good enough for a full promotion even as his contract specifies promotion.
The difficulty facing Enrique is that he has to deal with a coterie of almosts, players who are almost good enough and good enough to set supporter tongues wagging, but who aren’t legitimately good enough to make a first team of the caliber of Barça. It isn’t a question of managing those youth players within that first team, but a simpler question of quality.
It isn’t Samper or Halilovic’s fault that Barça has a stacked midfield. It’s a consequence of the team wanting to build the best possible squad. Should Barça have passed on Turan to make sure that there was a spot for Samper? That’s the “theory vs reality” question again. Theory is “Yes, of course. Youth player development is the most important thing.” Then RM picks up Turan, and the Barça technical staff is stupid for not having bought him, because a player such as that, blablabla.
Enrique is, like the youth players people are so worried about his management of, between a rock and a hard place. He has to keep on winning. Would any culer tolerate finishing third in the league with an XI that gave the likes of Grimaldo, Samper, Munir and Traore all the playing time they required to reach their fullest potential? No. Don’t even try it. People can’t even deal with losing a pre-season friendly.
Jordi Alba is a Masia product who went away and came back a much better player than he probably would have been had he stayed, because of playing time. He developed as a starter for Valencia, worked into the Spain XI and returned to the club of his roots. And he arrived with that understanding. What of a player such as Traore? Alves creates so much danger because he understands how to interact with Messi. Is the first team ready for a Traore who will take the ball, poke it forward and rush toward the end line to either cut into the box or make a cross? We saw some of Samper vs Chelsea, and the different kinds of pressure that a top team brings to bear. Enrique isn’t just watching Samper makes those elegant passes, He’s also watching defense, off-the-ball movement, etc. Are we ready to concede set pieces a tricky, quick forward sharpens Samper’s learning curve? What of Munir letting yet another chance go begging because he gets pushed off the ball too easily?
Development is called that for a reason, and youth products need it. As ideal as it would be to have that development come at the club they are eventually going to play for, a cradle-to-grave experience, that just isn’t likely, viable or to my view, the best thing for the players in question. And the only person whose fault that is goes by the name of Bad Timing.