Greetings, earthlings. I’m Linda, long-suffering London-based grad student and occasional football blogger at The Beautiful Game. I enjoy playing Devil’s Advocate, Argentinian football players and Pep Guardiola. Nice to meet you all.
Let’s talk signings.
“Youngsters need opportunities — everyone needs time,” former Barcelona player Guillermo Amor told The Associated Press. “With all conditions being equal, a homegrown player has a better chance than one who comes in from abroad. The Xavis and Iniestas took 10 years to get to where they are.”
The above quote, taken from a recent article singing the praises of La Masia, is very telling on a number of levels. No, this isn’t another post on the myriad achievements of our youth system over the past two decades. That’s old hat. I want to talk about something a little more controversial.
Amor has neatly encapsulated the organising philosophy of Guardiola‘s Barca, about which much ink has been spilled in the last few months. I want to use his comment as a jumping off point to talk about a thorny issue for Cules: that is, how big money signings who haven’t been hand-reared in the Barca school of football fit into the picture under this philosophy.
“I’ve said many times that for the homegrown guys [Barca] feels like a family business.” – Xavi, Xavi550 documentary
Firstly, let me be very clear: this post rests on the assumption that Guardiola operates with a bias towards La Masia graduates, all other things being equal. You may or may not agree with this policy, which has arguably been in place for decades before being taken to new and exciting heights under the leadership of the ultimate hometown boy done good. The reasoning behind it is fairly obvious – once again, all other things being equal – the home-grown player will probably fit in more easily, both in terms of personality and in terms of playing style. But what about those positions where reinforcements are necessary?
This post was partially inspired by discussions between host Eoin McDevitt and journalist Graham Hunter and later Eoin and presenter Ken Early on the Off the Ball Football Show (the 17 November 2010 edition in particular). [By the way, I thoroughly recommend the podcast. Fantastic listening 90% of the time.]
To briefly sum up the two discussions for the purposes of this post, the first concerned the proposed signing of Ibrahim Afellay. In response to a question about Afellay’s utility, Hunter gives a fairly complete overview of the relevant boxes a player has to tick in order to fit in well at Barca. I’m going to condense those criteria down into five categories: 1) quality, 2) culture, 3) style, 4) mentality and 5) personality. We’ll come back to this later.
The second discussion concerned whether or not the Barca old guard are overly cliquish, given the close-knit nature of the locker room. Hunter claims that while the camaraderie amongst players who have known each other since they were kids could be difficult to penetrate from the outside, the old guard were sufficiently welcoming towards those who were: 1) decent footballers in possession of 2) a hard-working attitude. Ken Early retorts that a lot of players have had trouble fitting in recently (true) and that the thoroughness of La Masia’s ideological indoctrination is itself an intimidating barrier to other players. (He didn’t put it in those words, but that’s the gist.)
[I have done my best to be accurate with the summary above. My apologies if there are any errors.]
In about 2003, Barcelona’s local boys sat down together and noted that they had won no big prizes. They resolved to stop tolerating selfish stars. Instead, they themselves would rule the side. – Simon Kuper’s FT.com column, 2009
I’ve never seen this tantalizing piece of gossip mentioned anywhere else [if you have, please point me to the source in the comments], but Kuper is as fine a source as any. The timing he claims is particularly interesting. While the team of Frank Rijkaard formed by the major reshuffle in 2003 had a strong home-grown influence, it would be a slight stretch to say that it was ruled by local boys. Foreign superstars such as Ronaldinho, Deco and Eto’o loomed large over the side, and for as long as that influence remained positive, it seemed a healthy balance. When Ronaldinho – the great symbol of that side – and Deco – one of its main leaders – began to violate the second part of Hunter’s formulation of acceptability, the one requiring a certain amount of dedication and professionalism, it was the beginning of the end for both.
On the other hand, Eto’o remained a hard-working professional, well regarded by the rest of the locker room. He is perhaps one of the better examples of Hunter’s argument. Let’s revisit those criteria:
1) Quality: not a matter of snobbery. Barca’s style requires a certain level of technical proficiency, otherwise it just doesn’t work for anyone. Maxi Lopez, God bless him, is a negative example of this principle.
2) Culture: this is two-fold: can the player settle in Spain, both on and off the pitch? Are they willing to learn the language? Can they fine-tune their playing style to fit with La Liga’s fussy referees? Maxwell is an example of someone who has done this well. One could argue that Alex Hleb is an example of the opposite.
3) Style: does the player fit with Barca’s style of football? Here’s where the Ibrahimovic debate comes in. On the flipside, current problem child Dani Alves slotted in like a missing puzzle piece.
4) Mentality:the good old cliché: ‘can he cut it at this level?’ Henrik Larsson, for example, was an emphatic yes, despite the doubts voiced by some detractors back in the day. (Haters, please familiarize yourself with the left hand evacuation procedure.)
5) Personality: probably the trickiest. This is what Henry put his finger on when he spoke about the need for new signings to understand the fans, the club and the city in order to succeed. I would argue that Keita is a good example of someone who fits in well personality-wise.
Applied to Eto’o: one of the best strikers in the world, who was already well accustomed to both Spain and Spanish football, whose playing style suited Barca down to the ground, with the kind of ferocious desire to win that Barca circa 2004 were in need of, and who understood barcelonismo implicitly.
Bringing things back to our new kid on the block, only time will tell if Afellay ticks all the boxes. An ‘inconclusive due to insufficient data’ on 4) aside, the early signs are very promising. Plus he’s Dutch. That always helps.
Comments welcome, although I ask for your forgiveness in advance for delays in replying. Grad school and all that. I’m also to be found on Twitter @blackwhitengrey, if you’re that way inclined.