“Valverde doesn’t trust youth.”
This has become culer lore as it relates to the Barça coach, who must be wondering what he can do, not that he seems to care all that much.
Youth players are, in this case, the coterie of almosts who dot the first-team bench like the scrubs at pickup games, raising their hands to say “Put me in, coach,” as the coach looks at the bigger, stronger main players, and wonders.
Here is the FC Barcelona XI:
Ter Stegen, Sergi Roberto, Pique, Umtiti, Alba, Busquets, Rakitic, Arthur, Coutinho, Messi, Suarez
Here is the FC Barcelona bench:
Rafinha, Malcom, Lenglet, Vermaelen, Vidal, Samper, Semedo, Cillessen, Dembele, Denis Suarez, Munir
This season, it has been easier to watch Barça B matches than last, when you needed hope, a VPN and a ritual sacrifice. This year, official streams are more abundant, and watching the Segunda B battlers is illustrative, if you’re paying attention. If you watch and are, it’s worth asking yourself an important question:
Who from that group would you entrust the season to, over current first-team members? Is “trust the season” dramatic? Maybe. Maybe not. Play a B teamer, they make a key error and a goal results. Given the tightness of the table, it isn’t inconceivable to foresee a super-tight Liga points battle all season long. Again: Who from that group would you trust the season to?
To honestly answer that query, you have to remove narrative and bias from the picture and look at that group with clear eyes. The most talented among them are Riqui Puig, who you already saw giving Milan players fits in pre-season, Carles Alena, who will be returning to his first-team spot to stay once Copa resumes, Miranda, who himself said he wasn’t ready yet, and Chumi, the CB who made the Sevilla squad for the last Liga matchday.
If you were the Barça coach, what would you do?
Both questions are relevant because sitting at a keyboard, or banging away on a touchscreen with nothing at stake makes it easy. Roll out that Masia XI, play juego de posicion and let’s do that Treble thang. Real life isn’t that easy.
Never forget that a coach’s first job is to win. That is true whether the coach is Valverde, Klopp, Setien, Guardiola or any of the other managers working in the game. Win. All the rest is supporter dogma and theory. The only thing missing from the current first team is a backup left back. Some recent quotes are also interesting. Despite what various media outlets have said, club president Josep Bartomeu and technical secretary Eric Abidal have both said that nothing is going to happen in January.
Starting first-team keeper and resident deity Marc-Andre Ter Stegen said that the best way to find out whether youth players are ready is to play them, a sentiment being embraced by the “Valverde hates the youth” crowd. But ask Ter Stegen if he really wants his nets defended by Chumi and Miranda instead of the first-team incumbents. Ah, but surely he must mean those matches in which Cillessen plays. So no worries there.
“Well, Guardiola gave chances to youth products.” He did when he coached Barça. And it’s true. Folks such as Tello, Jeffren, Krkic and Cuenca got their runouts. And where are they now? Where were they then, aside from farther along than the current batch of untrusted youth? They scored goals here and there, but that’s about it. Now that Guardiola is at Manchester City, without having done any digging (and would be happy to have been proven wrong), how many City EDS or academy players have gotten runouts? Phil Foden got looks in the Carabao Cup last year and made the leap but he is ready, like Puig and Alena, with first-team quality.
For the Manchester City pre-season tour, Guardiola used academy players in the same way that Valverde did, as things to look at for the future with unavailable first-teamers vacationing or at the World Cup. That’s just how it goes. Foden, the biggest star of that City group and probably the equivalent to Puig, had this to say about Guardiola and his future with the club, in a September article in the Manchester Evening News:
“I’ll just keep getting these cup games and run-outs whenever I can and hopefully I can start a lot more games one day.
“There’s no need to rush. Pep knows what he’s doing and I’ll play at the right time. He’s good at bringing youth players through, he’s done it in his career before so just be patient, I’m still young and I’m still learning.
“Training with the likes of David [Silva] and Kevin [De Bruyne] and seeing what they do every day has brought me on as a player and working with Pep as well has been a really big part of my game. Both him and Mikel have been a massive help.
“I just have to keep impressing and keep working hard and see where it gets me.”
If those quotes sound familiar, they’re because every academy talent says the same at working and training with the first team. It’s part of the process. This includes at Barça. They train with the first team, learn that pace and quality of play and the coaching staff evaluates them with the future in mind. And they grow.
This club and its relationship to La Masia in the here and now is an odd one, forged by dogma, idealism and history. A legendary group came from the club academy, a feat likely to never be repeated again. Messi, Xavi, Iniesta, Busquets, Puyol, Valdes and others formed the core of a legendary batch of players. But there have been a lot more Jeffrens than Xavis. That’s academy reality. In the here and now of the Internet generation, it’s never been easier to get information about youth players, follow their exploits and declare them the Next Big Thing. A person no less skilled and veteran than Graham Hunter declared Dongou an amazing, can’t-miss talent. No idea where he is now.
Xavi wasn’t Xavi until he became Xavi, and he was able to do that in relative calm. Today, Xavi would be getting profiles when he was 14 years old, like Xavi Simons. He would have an agent, and hype, and people would be screaming for him to get a first-team look from age 15, before his testicles have barely dropped. It’s a different world now, one that should be aware of history, triumphs and pitfalls.
There is tremendous talent in the academy, and a coach such as Valverde, or any coach, would be foolish to ignore that talent. Just as foolish would be to inflate the quality of that talent into something that it isn’t. Just because a player is in the Barça academy and might be doing well doesn’t mean he is ready for the Barça first team. It means he is good enough for the club’s second division. When you watch Puig playing with B, he looks like an alien dropped in to play with humans, levels above the folks around him. Alena is also there. No other names come to mind when you watch B matches, players who you watch and say to yourself, “Wow. Look at that.”
If unskilled observers such as us make those kinds of assessments, what must Valverde think as we watches Barça B? For him, here is the question: “Which of these players are good enough to help my team win?”
Valverde has the same job as Guardiola or any other Barça coach: win. B is for developing talent and a way of playing, for indoctrination and settling, and evaluation. The first team is for championships. If a B player is good enough to fit into that group AND grow with that group, rock on. If not, and that “if” is important, perspective matters. Never forget that coach’s first job, and the necessity of patience.