“May you live in interesting times” is considered by many to be a curse, but one that is apt when it comes to the modern game.
A fascinating study on transfers, fees and their overall effect was released by FIFPro today. Organizational biases aside, there were many interesting aspects to the study as related to Barça, in terms of the inverse proportion of youth development percentages and transfer fees and how at a certain level, the transfer system is regressive because only the big clubs can afford certain players, in effect trading among themselves.
This first is most interesting for culers I think, because there is significant debate about the Barça youth system right now in terms of how it develops players and how those players are used in the first team. Sport released one of those “lies, damned lies and statistics” kinds of surveys to show that Enrique is the best at youth development among top coaches, going by minutes played. But if you parse the numbers, Sandro and Munir constitute the bulk of those percentages. Whether Enrique is in fact good at developing youth players is a question for another time, but in the context of the FIFPro document it’s worth a quick bit of speculation about what it all means for Barça.
The root of what the first team is supposed to do is win championships. Not tomorrow, today. Any coach that comes into the first team job has that mandate. And yet, at a club that is proud, and increasingly so of its youth system and how it feeds players into the first team, the needs of winning and development need to be balanced. They make strange, incompatible bedfellows, an incompatibility that is increasing as sugar daddy clubs enter the fray at the top level.
When Pep Guardiola incorporated Pedro and Busquets into the first team a few questioned the move, but the players quickly demonstrated their role within the side, the latter even forcing the sale of Toure Yaya to Manchester City. This move embedded these two system players in a team already stuffed with Masia talent: Xavi, Iniesta, Messi, Pique, Valdes, Puyol. There was even a time during the Guardiola period where the team had, on the pitch at the same time, an all-system XI, something that was and is remarkable at the giant club level.
But in some ways, that team set an extraordinary standard that almost permanently precluded the all-system XI due to the pressures of time, money and success. The Guardiola years were extraordinary in so many ways, from focus on a system of play to unprecedented victories but most notably for this piece, the quality of the home-grown talents on the pitch. Barça didn’t just win, it dominated. And it dominated with a home-grown coach playing the club’s system with home-grown players. It’s the stuff of romance, so it isn’t surprising that the Guardiola era is regarded with such awe. It was awesome.
The success of that team sparked rivals into action. Clubs such as Real Madrid spent stupefying amounts of money to bring in talent. And as culers reminded them of that ever-increasing total and reveled in its system players wreaking havoc for transfer fees of exactly zilch, the world was conspiring. Chelsea, financed by billionaire Roman Abramovich, became the first club to spoil the party with money and almost immediate success. Then Manchester City entered the fray and finally, Paris St.-Germain. These were teams with limitless spending power, gobbling up the best talent while changing the transfer market. Suddenly, EUR50m for a defender was considered normal, and transfer summers counted in the hundreds of millions became commonplace. Within those big-money summers not a glance was cast at anyone else’s academy, even as Barça moved through the likes of Tello, Cuenca and Jeffren.
In that context was also a world that was figuring out how to play against Barça, coupled with the age-based diminishment of skills of many of those system talents. A different way of playing was needed, as coaches began to experiment with a more vertical style of attack. It was at this time that things began to change at Barça, with the arrival of Neymar. Disputes about the fee notwithstanding, what Neymar represented fascinating: a very young, world-class player who did not come from within the system. Not a bargain punt like Afellay, either. Mostly before that, transfers were of established players already capable of playing at the European elite level. These players were also mature, the likes of Alves, Keita, Henry and Hleb. Neymar was a significant admission, that the academy didn’t have a player like that. Yes, Neymar was an incendiary talent. But the club dipped its toe into the big-money transfer market for a youth player, even as it had talents such as Gerard Deulofeu and Adama Traore rising quickly through the ranks. Can’t keep them around because the club has already bought Aleix Vidal.
At present, Enrique has a team with an XI academy presence that is as low as it has been in some time, with only Messi, Iniesta, Busquets, Pique and Alba. In the big club context, to have 5 academy players as permanent fixtures in the XI is extraordinary, even when you consider the roundabout paths of Pique and Alba to that XI. Enrique is also competing with giant clubs such as Bayern, RM, City, PSG and Chelsea, who have no real impetus to dabble in their youth systems or blood players in a way that prepares them for the rigors of top-level football. Luis Suarez was the next giant purchase, an EUR80+m promissory note of greatness that paid off and Enrique’s team did something that was, just a few years previous, considered unthinkable: it won another treble. The reward for such success is, of course, a demand for more and greater success.
In that same environment is unprecedented scrutiny of the club’s youth development system. Players are hyped as the Next Big Thing. But those talents are emerging into a very different, less-innocent world. It’s an arms race now. The luxury of gently working in, and bringing along a player such as Samper or Grimaldo is gone, a necessity forced by the massive money and transfers at the top of sport, as clubs try to buy success. Simply put, Enrique doesn’t have the time nor the luxury to work in a player such as Traore or Deulofeu. They aren’t good enough now. So off they go. Does Enrique want to work them in? Who knows. How can he? Where is the tolerance for failure?
Guardiola incorporating Busquets into the side as the linchpin for a way of playing was a stroke of genius. It was also a luxury afforded a coach with carte blanche, as well as a relic of a different time. The game and transfer market have changed a lot in just over five years. It’s worth asking whether Busquets could even happen in the current Barça context. It isn’t just that the courage and discipline required of a coach to travel that path would be extraordinary. It’s also that the stockpiled talent in first teams mitigates against a youth player who isn’t already at a world-class level, which few of them are. You only get one Messi per lifetime. The rest need patience, from coaches and fanbases.
But how does that happen in a world where a draw is treated with the garment-rending chagrin of a catastrophe? The balance is so, so delicate and the bar is also much higher for any youth talent. Suddenly the question isn’t whether a youth player is talented, but is he talented enough? The other kids in Samper’s playground are in fact men: Iniesta, Rafinha, Turan, Rakitic, Busquets, Mascherano. How does he force his way into that rogue’s gallery and what does he do when he gets there? Every one of these players is starting for club sides and national teams. And what does a coach do in a land where a team being tied for first even after a shaky start to the season, is considered a crisis?
Now let’s pile on the fanbase ego-stroking gratification of big-money transfers. “Of course Pogba wants to come to Barça. Why wouldn’t he?” Giddy exclamations of joy accompany rumors that the club is looking at Youri Tielemans. What must Samper think when he sees this stuff happen? And what do supporters think as they scream about Samper’s lack of inclusion in the next breath they can take after gushing over a transfer rumor? They are all symptoms of an expensive, impatient New Football.
What the FIFPro study makes clear is that the game is in a very different place. Munir El-Haddadi is the future, and the future after that is Seung-Woo Lee. But the template is defined by an 80m, world-class striker. Play Munir, and “He should finish those chances,” or “He gets pushed off the ball too easily. Bring in Suarez.”
The FIFPro study should be raising alarm bells, particularly at a club that cherishes its youth academy. As transfer spending goes up and the use of home-grown players goes down, that can’t mean anything good as clubs will continue to throw money at established big names because of the impatient impetuosity of demands for success. There is too much money riding on all of this for failure to be tolerated. It’s a grim, ugly environment into which the innocent, stunned face of a youth player is thrust. Even as so many might want that player to succeed, how in the hell is it even possible?