With the once-glorious academy ignored in the last few years, Barça Universal attempts to put together a starting XI of the best ex-La Masia players in the world, based on their ability and form.
FC Barcelona’s fabled La Masía is often regarded as one of the best academies in world football. Having produced players like Lionel Messi, Andrés Iniesta, and Xavi Hernández, to name a few, it’s no question why.
The Blaugrana are in a fortunate spot where they can integrate promising youngsters from their youth teams into their senior squad; however, in recent years, there has been a divergence from this approach. Consequently, Barça have seen their fair share of homegrown starlets slip through the cracks.
In this piece, we at Barça Universal will be forming a starting eleven of the best active ex-La Masía players in the world. Based on their quality and recent performances, these are the best eleven players who either left the Catalan club at a young age or never cemented a place in the first team. We have decided to go through with a 4-2-3-1 formation for the team.
GK: André Onana
Between the sticks, there are few better than André Onana. The Cameroonian international left Barça at 19, and has not looked back since. He’s developed into a premier goalkeeper and has been linked with a move to big clubs all across Europe.
“I think André [Onana] is fantastic. He came to Ajax aged 18 or 19 and the way he developed, and the natural attributes that he already had, his speed, his reaction… I think he set himself as a great goalkeeper.”Edwin van der Sar, 2018
Onana has decisive command of his box, quick reflexes, and is a great shot-stopper. Across 31 appearances last season, he had 11 clean sheets and a formidable 75.5% save percentage. He has also led the Champions League in the last two campaigns with post-shot expected goals minus goals allowed, a stat that measures how well a keeper fares against shots that are expected to go in. He achieved a mark of +4.5, meaning he prevented Ajax from conceding almost five extra goals.
The Catalans would surely regret letting him go if they did not have Marc-André ter Stegen taking charge of the gloves.
RB: Héctor Bellerín
Héctor Bellerín is a clear choice at right-back, edging out the only other realistic option, Real Betis’ Martín Montoya. The Spaniard left Barça in 2011 for Arsenal, after spending 8 years at the club. Although injuries have derailed his recent progress, he’s become a key asset for the Gunners.
Bellerín is quite talented, consistently blistering down the right-hand side with his pace and influencing all aspects of the game. He’s finding his footing after being in and out of the lineup for the last few seasons but already has two assists this campaign. He also earned his first national team call-up since 2016; a positive sign of things to come, maybe.
CB: Eric García
Whether due to his ability or the fact that he left La Masía for a Manchester club, Eric García has been dubbed by some to be the next Gerard Piqué. He spent nine successful years in Barcelona’s academy before joining Manchester City in 2017.
Pep Guardiola wooed Eric Garcia away from Barcelona, and the teenager has proved him right. (Photo via Getty)
Despite being only 19 years old, García plays with poise and composure beyond his years. As a ball-playing defender, he’s comfortable in possession and sharp with his passing, averaging a 96% completion rate last season and 93.8% this season. His high tactical awareness and high-grade positioning make up for lack of aerial prowess.
“He’s so smart, so intelligent. His physicality is not so, so strong, but he resolves the situation by thinking. I like to work with smart people, intelligent people. He is one of them. I can count on him.”Pep Guardiola, 2019
In recent months, García has been linked with a move back to his boyhood club, a testament to his abilities and a sign that Barça repent letting him go. His quality and high-ceiling make him an unquestioned choice at centre-back for this list.
CB: Marc Bartra
The other player in the heart of the defence is Marc Bartra. The 29-year-old could never quite cement a spot in Barça’s first team and was often a backup for Carles Puyol, Gerard Piqué, and Javier Mascherano. Consequently, he left the club in 2016 for Borussia Dortmund, after making over 100 appearances for the first team and winning 13 trophies.
Like most La Masía-bred defenders, Bartra is lauded for his passing ability. He adds to that with his top-notch aerial ability and solid tackling.
He now finds himself playing in the La Liga with Real Betis, where he’s a key member of their squad, and one of the first names in the list for the Seville outfit. Admittedly, there aren’t a lot of centre-backs to choose from, but Bartra still deserves his spot on this list.
LB: Álex Grimaldo
Rounding out the defence is Álex Grimaldo. He was revered as a youngster, making over 100 appearances for Barça’s B-team, but ended up leaving for Benfica in 2016 in search of more playing time, when that spot became Jordi Alba’s to lose.
Grimaldo is quick, intelligent, a great dribbler, and is a persistent threat going forward, fitting perfectly into Benfica’s expansive, attacking side. Since the 2018-19 season, he has 23 assists and eight goals across all competitions.
“For me, Grimaldo is one of the best five left-backs in Europe. Many Benfica players are ready to, someday, play in a world-class team. Grimaldo is good enough to play for any side right now.”Tiago Pinto (Benfica Sporting Director), 2020
The left-back has quietly developed into one of the best in the world at his position and is certainly someone Barça should wish they could have right now. He’s one of the best players in this list, and his inclusion goes with little to no fuss.
CM: Thiago Alcântara
Thiago: the one that got away. Despite his immense talent, he was unlucky in his first few years at Barça having to find a spot in the first team midfield that was dominated by the likes of prime Xavi, Andres Iniesta, and Sergio Busquets. A certain Cesc Fabregas was left as an outcast in this team; there was only so much Thiago could do. As a result, he left the Catalan giants in the summer of 2013 for Bayern Munich, where he would cement his status as one of the best midfielders in the world.
One that keeps the Barça administration and fans up at night all the same. (Photo via Imago)
The Spanish international is lauded for his technical prowess and intelligence. He’s a great passer, averaging over 89% completion rate for the past four seasons, has fantastic vision and is a treat to the eyes on the ball. He’s not only an ideal Barça midfielder but a world-beater by any metric.
Thiago was a key part of Bayern’s treble-winning side last season and now finds himself at the heart of Liverpool’s midfield. He’s a player Barça should have tried to sign back and will be remembered as one of the best La Masia graduates of the last decade.
CM: Oriol Romeu
Oriol Romeu may not be a familiar name to most, nor is he someone fans are clamouring to have back, but his performances this season for an impressive Southampton have earned him a spot in this XI.
Romeu left the Catalan side in 2011 for Chelsea but struggled to settle anywhere before moving to Southampton in 2015.
The Saints are currently sitting fourth in the Premier League heading into the international break, in no small part thanks to Romeu. He’s played in all eight league games this season and is third in total minutes played for his side. The Spaniard is an anchor in the midfield, aggressive in tackles and inept at stopping plays. He’s leading the Premier League in tackles this season, averaging 4.42 tackles plus interceptions per game.
He’s not what you could call the idea player for Barça or one the club necessarily laments selling, but he has been truly incredible this season and deserves recognition all the same.
RW: Adama Traoré
Adama Traoré followed the path of many before him, leaving the Camp Nou for greener grass. He made his first-team debut at only 17 years old and managed to grab one goal in four appearances, but the front three of Lionel Messi, Neymar, and Luis Suarez would see him get little-to-no playing time.
Culés still remember Adama Traore’s fantastic solo goal in the Copa del Rey. (Photo by JOSEP LAGO/AFP)
Traoré settled in at Wolverhampton Wanderers in 2018 and has realised his potential there. He had a breakout season last year, with 6 goals and 10 assists, as well as an astounding 5.22 successful dribbles per game — one of the highest in Europe. This season, the Spanish International is leading the Premier League in terms of the number of players dribbled past — 30 in eight matches.
The 24-year-old is a magnificent player. His physical attributes stand out, being one of the strongest and fastest players in the world, and unstoppable at his best; but he’s much more than that. His technical ability and close control are excellent, and that coupled with his physical gifts make him a sight to behold on the pitch.
The Spaniard’s inclusion in this list is fairly straightforward. He’s on a meteoric rise and is the type of squad option Barça wish they could have right now.
CAM: Dani Olmo
Filling in behind the striker is Dani Olmo, yet another starlet Barça that slipped through the cracks. He spent seven years at La Masía before a shocking move to Dinamo Zagreb in 2014, but the decision has fared well for him. He dominated his spell with the Croatian side, tallying 34 goals and 28 assists in 124 appearances.
The 22-year-old is now a squad member at RB Leipzig, where he’s dazzling the Bundesliga with his dribbling, creativity, and vision. He has three assists in seven Bundesliga appearances this season and is only getting better.
Olmo is one of the brightest young Spaniards in the world and is currently in their squad for the international break.
LW: Marc Cucurella
Marc Cucurella never had a chance to prove himself at Barça, and he’s now excelling at Getafe. He was developed as a left-back but has now been successfully converted into a wide midfielder, playing on the left of a 4-4-2, since making a permanent move to the Madrid outfit in July this year.
Cucurella is a work-horse on both sides of the ball. Defensively, he’s a pest who consistently tracks the ball and fights for it, making up for any lack of physical prowess. He’s also great at pressing and tackling for a physical Getafe side, averaging 3.38 tackles and interceptions per game last season.
Offensively, he darts down the left-hand side and utilizes his pace and stamina along with his noteworthy off the ball movement. He had five assists last campaign and will be looking to improve upon that.
Cucurella may not be the flashiest name here, but much like Oriel Romeu, his recent performances are commendable, thus earning him this spot at left-mid.
ST: Mauro Icardi
Rounding out the team is Mauro Icardi, a name some might not recognize as an ex-La Masía player. Although he has off-the-field issues, his sheer talent alone sanctions his spot in this draft. Not to mention, his prolific goalscoring record as well.
The Argentine left the Catalans in 2011 after a brief 3-year stint. After a few seasons in Sampdoria, he moved to Internazionale Milan, where he broke out, gathering 124 goals and 28 assists in 219 appearances. In his current club PSG, the goals have continued raining in as he has scored 22 times in only 38 appearances.
The 2018 Serie A Player of the Year is a classic #9 who prefers to do all his damage in the penalty box. As a forward, he’s lethal in front of goal and always makes the right movements to get into scoring positions.
“In my opinion, Icardi is the second-best striker in the penalty box who I’ve ever marked.”Giorgio Chiellini, 2018
Icardi may not be a player Barça would desperately want to return, give his multiple tantrums or one that fits their style, but he’s the best ex-La Masía striker in the world, and that stands almost without question.
If this starting eleven indicates anything, it’s that Barça should be diverting more attention to La Masía and the gems they produce. Promising youngsters like Grimaldo, Olmo, and Traoré should have never departed without being given ample time to prove themselves, and the club should hope that history doesn’t repeat itself with prospects like Riqui Puig.
There are plenty of good players – Munir El Haddadi, Rafinha Alcântara, Cristian Tello, for instance –who didn’t make this list due to positional constraints or being edged-out by better options, and they serve as a further example of how much talent Barça has let slip through the cracks in recent memory. This is not to say that all La Masía graduates will grow up to reach the heights of Messi or Xavi, but they should all at least have the chance to stake their claim in the first team.
La Masia, the state of football, and the future of the ‘Barcelona DNA’
An inconspicuous morning at the Ciutat Esportiva on the 6th of December, 2010 was interrupted by a historical message. The Ballon d’Or podium would be composed of three players from the same club and the same academy.
In a feat that is yet to be repeated, the massive presences of Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta, and Xavi Hernandez were felt across Europe throughout the year. That was arguably the moment that La Masia peaked. As the three posed together at the end of the training session for a photo, clasping a football together, they represented everything Barcelona stood for and everything that Barcelona’s football signifies.
A decade has passed, and it’s not a surprise to see that La Masia is yet to reach those heights. Players like these are generational. We know that for Messi, Iniesta and Xavi to reach the heights that they did, a lot of factors came into play. Out of these, La Masia’s backroom staff, coaches, managers deserve immense credit.
Since then, football has undergone changes as it always does. From controlling the game and keeping possession, and playing a patient passing game, the landscape is now focused on two major phases of play. Pressing and transitions. This raises a question which this article will try to answer; what changes, if any, will La Masia and, in turn, the Barca DNA have to undergo to adapt to the current state of football?
Football in 2021
In the 2000s and towards the early years of the 2010s, football was to some extent based on the French approach of pacey attackers with a strong midfield consisting of a ‘water-carrier’ type player accompanied by a more creative player, or on the Spanish approach of keeping possession and patiently playing your way around the opposition. In the past few years, the emphasis has been on efficient and intense pressing with innovative, adaptive transitions.
For example, though the pressing systems of some teams in the last decade, such as Sir Alex Fergusson’s Manchester United or Pep Guardiola’s FC Barcelona, were highly potent, they were not as intricate or well-timed as the current pressing systems. Rather, they were based majorly on optimal positioning and high work-rates.
It’s not that there aren’t teams that look to play a possession-based game nowadays, but that innovations in pressing and transitions are better rewarded due to the current footballing landscape.
You would be hard-pressed (pun fully intended) to find teams a decade or more ago that carried out these activities as well as Borussia Monchengladbach, Liverpool, or RB Leipzig do now. The positioning, player roles, and individual instructions, combined with the team’s structure and triggers, all combine to create a beautiful clockwork mechanism of pressing and transitioning.
Changes to the Barça style, if any
There is something special about the principles that La Masia is based on. Apart from those related to personalities such as humility, sincerity, and discipline, the more tangible ones such as the footballing model and the core philosophy behind it are in themselves a representation of a club of massive historical stature. What makes them special is how some of them act as the base, the sturdy philosophy, while some serve as flexible paths acting as a way to progress.
For example, consider the formations used in Barcelona. The 4-3-3 is always preferred as it allows for attacking play, controlled possession, and makes the most of great technique. This is a factor that is flexible to an extent. The most obvious example is Ronald Koeman’s recent 3-5-2.
Not a 4-3-3, but yet a formation that makes the most of great technique and looks to maintain possession. Granted, the formation is not the only thing that allows for the aforementioned qualities. It instead acts as the flexible path and allows for optimal balance between the club’s philosophy and tweaks made to the team to optimize the performance.
A rather steadfast characteristic is basic positional play. Optimal spacing, receiving behind the lines on the half-turn, forming triangles. Such aspects of Barcelona’s game are non-negotiable and for good reason. Having been taught these skills from childhood, every La Masia player assimilates them from day one.
These fundamentals are more than just simple abilities or skills. They are qualities that allow the player to adapt to most conditions and situations. This is because optimal positioning is the key to playing well in any position.
For a defender, tackling is then next best step once the positioning is sacrificed. For a midfielder, the body-orientation when receiving and ideal positioning are frequently very hard to display consistently. Similarly, offensively, positioning and spatial awareness — once again, things that are the basis of what is taught as part of modern football.
The point being, these core principles and the basics of what has been taught at La Masia and adapted by countless teams and systems across the globe. These should remain unchanged and should continue to form the basis for the players’ development. Not only are they fundamentals in football, but the way they are taught at Barcelona are such that they allow the players to adapt to situations well, perform with versatility and have a strong foundation.
The question posed in this article is not one with a candid answer. There is no single interpretation, it is impossible to neglect what is taught at La Masia or accept it completely. The basics, however, must remain. To ascertain the changes or alterations needed, let’s consider the cases of Riqui Puig and Ilaix Moriba, along with an exceptional midfielder and Gerard ‘Peque’ Fernandez.
Puig has had problems establishing himself under every manager in the first team. Apart from this, until recently, he was often neglected by Spain’s youth squads, only to receive the invitation for the U-21 Euros. The theory of him being physically deficient is, to an extent, true.
Consider Ilaix Moriba, a midfielder who has the same basics as Puig but is stronger, bigger, and has better shooting ability. In term of passing and vision, though, Ilaix needs improvement.
However, his skills are such that they allow his managers to count on him to make a difference despite the system. The point being made here is that not all short and agile midfielders can easily fit into the current footballing landscape. Different skills such as ball-carrying under pressure, strong attacking presence, etc., are not the norm for La Masia midfielders, but the lack of the same is being felt now. The examples of Xavi and Iniesta always spring to mind, but their pure intelligence and technical prowess is unmatched.
However, things are rarely black or white. There is a middle ground or an amalgam of both. And in this case, it is the aforementioned special midfielder — Nico Gonzalez. Currently playing for Barcelona B, Nico is a midfielder who represents modernity in the academy.
18-year-old and at 188cm, what immediately stands out regarding him is how he seems to glide across the pitch. Tackles come in, and they either bounce off him, or he just skips past them. Apply pressure on him, and he turns sharply and leaves the defenders looking at thin air. What makes him even better is his laser-guided passing and excellent special awareness. He has impressed everyone, and according to some news outlets, Ronald Koeman is looking to integrate him into the squad next season.
What Nico represents is a hybrid of two types of midfielders. The orthodox La Masia central-midfielder, an agile, technically proficient passing master combined with the attributes of press-resistance, strength, and balance needed to do well in the modern game.
Barcelona B’s striker, Gerard Fernandez, or ‘Peque’, as he is nicknamed, is a typical Barcelona striker. His link-up play when he drops back is always spot-on, his capableness in the box, admirable. To an extent, similar to Abel Ruiz. However, what they both lack is the ability to make a difference on their own.
Heading is naturally an issue, but apart from that, these aren’t the kind of strikers who can finish from anywhere in the box despite their usually impressive efficiency. Rather, they pass the ball into the net.
Though they have a unique skill set, one must also consider the needs of the modern game. A player like Mauro Icardi would not be preferred over a player like Erling Haaland or Kylian Mbappe. This doesn’t mean that Icardi isn’t an excellent player. It’s just that the situations needed for him to do well are much more constrained than those needed for the former two.
Evolution or adaptation?
It’s clear now that Barcelona need to retain the basis of what they teach at the academy. However, there are other skills that need to be given importance as well. It would be unrealistic to expect shooting akin to Ilaix from Riqui Puig. Despite this, to a certain extent, the latter would only benefit from picking up some of the abilities of the former. Players like Nico Gonzalez or Pedri Gonzalez, hybrids of what the past had to offer and what the future needs, are more valuable now than ever.
The philosophy that has gotten Barcelona where it is now is should remain the core of the academy. That is not negotiable. But there are areas, which if focused slightly more on, could make a huge difference and maybe, just maybe, eventually come close to replicating the iconic photo of Xavi, Iniesta, and Messi at the training ground.