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Five Barcelona youngsters who can bring back the club’s golden days

Aaryan Parasnis

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Photos via Getty and Imago

The name FC Barcelona will always be congruous with youth and talent. Barcelona youngsters have a rich history of rising through the system and etching their names onto football’s biggest stage. What comes to mind immediately is the club’s golden era. Every Cùle on the planet will have only fond memories of the times between 2008 and 2012.

Well over a decade after Johan Cruyff’s Dream Team, Barcelona once again enjoyed their most dominant and successful spell in world football. Barcelona’s rise to the very top of the footballing elite between those years was nothing short of miraculous. Many elements blended together in perfect harmony to build one of the greatest footballing outfits of all time.

First, Josep Guardiola’s appointment as the first-team coach and then, his ideal mix of youth working in tandem with the experienced players. Guardiola managed to get the best out of the Barcelona youngsters, translating their talent into world-class ability. His trust in Pedro and Sergio Busquets as he promoted them to the first team paid massive dividends. As did his faith in Gerard Pique, as well as the iconic Xavi-Iniesta duo, who while supremely talented, were yet to hit their prime.

What followed was an avalanche of titles and rewritten football history books. However, the landscape at Barcelona has changed quite a bit since then. But after a fair few years, the Blaugrana can finally have some optimism looking to the future. Finally, a crop of youngsters with real pedigree have all assembled, waiting to explode.

There are plenty of players who have the potential to make this list and it is tough to narrow it down to even five. Such is the class of La Masia and some of the new Barcelona youngsters who have arrived from outside. Here are 5 of the brightest raw diamonds in Barça’s crown:

Riqui Puig

Nothing will bring Puig down. (Photo via Imago)

The boy whose name is on everyone’s lips right now. Although, mostly in the headlines for unfortunate reasons right now, Ricard ‘Riqui’ Puig must soon become a mainstay in Barcelona’s midfield. Tiny in stature but with a bigger personality than many senior players, Puig is an absolute joy to behold on a football pitch.

Standing at just under 5’6″ tall, Puig has no regard for doubters, for his opponents’ size, or the pressure of the occasion in competition. He is gutsy and charismatic both on and off the ball. The 21-year-old uses his body extremely well. He can turn on a dime, ghost past the opposition press as if it never existed, run like a hound to win the ball back, capable of silky dodges with it at his feet and can release his teammates in the blink of an eye. All traits that constitute the ideal Barcelona midfielder.

Last season, he revealed it to the Barça fans who hadn’t observed him with the B team previously. Under Quique Setien, Puig seemed poised to become a mainstay in the first team. But alas, football isn’t that simple. He is clearly yet to convince Ronald Koeman, but like several other Barcelona youngsters in this list, it is only a matter of time before we see him work his magic regularly.

Ronald Araujo

Araujo is the next big name in the Barcelona defence. (Photo via Getty)

Injuries to key defenders this season have already marred Barcelona’s season. In what we can only call a strange campaign so far, Ronald Araujo has been an absolute revelation at the back. With a lengthy injury to Gerard Pique and trouble for Sergi Roberto, Barça have been heavily understaffed in defence. Araujo and Oscar Mingueza have had to step up and they have been nothing short of fantastic.

It is no secret that since the retirement of a certain Carles Puyol, Barcelona have largely struggled at the back. Neither the youth nor most of the transfers in that position have shown any signs of coming close to filling the iconic captain’s shoes. And although it is possible that nobody ever truly can, there is reason aplenty to be excited about Araujo, especially after he was named in ESPN’s Breakout Players list of 2021.

The tall, commanding centre-half is showing everything one looks for in a defender. He has impeccable reading of the game, undeterred in his challenges, alert and very vocal when he needs to be. He has started in eight La Liga games so far this season and has featured for every one of the 360 lung-busting minutes of Barcelona’s last three cup fixtures. And rightfully so, for he has been imperious. And according to SofaScore, he hasn’t been dribbled past in his last ten appearances for the Catalans.

Ronald Araujo is only 21 and has a lot to learn. For example, his distribution is not quite there yet, but he is definitely improving with experience. And for a 21-year-old to become an integral part of Barça’s defence is no small feat. In fact, the last person who thrived on that kind of faith at the exact same age was a certain Gerard Pique.

Sergino Dest

Dest has the ability to single-handedly control the flank. (Photo via Imago)

Fullbacks have been ever instrumental in Barcelona’s success. Similar to Carles Puyol’s departure, Dani Alves leaving left another major void in the Barcelona XI all these years. The Brazilian was an era-defining fullback, who was an absolute menace from right-back. Naturally, when one of the greatest fullbacks of all time leaves the club, filling his boots is no easy task. But Barça have not even come anywhere close to replicating Alves. He remains to date, the most decorated footballer in history.

The right-back position has since been extremely problematic. Makeshift deputies and largely failed transfers had created a crater with worryingly low attacking output and a susceptible defense. Cules began wondering whether the club would ever manage to solve the issue. That is of course, until the recent arrival of Sergino Dest. The young American from Ajax has been an absolute revelation for Barcelona. After waiting patiently for his chance, an injury to Sergi Roberto saw him explode to life.

The 20-year-old was linked to Barça multiple times before finally making the move from Amsterdam to the Camp Nou. Fearless, talented and unnaturally mature for his age, Dest possesses an extremely versatile skill set, priceless for Barcelona right now. His incredible dribbling ability is complemented by his composure, brought about by his background as a midfielder. His verticality and willingness to take calculated risks makes him highly unpredictable, but a joy to link up with if you’re a teammate.

He also works immensely hard while tracking back, with seemingly endless energy. And despite his relatively small stature, he is tenacious and does not back out of a challenge. He seems to have already found a great understanding with Lionel Messi, but at the same time does not rely only on him to showcase his ability. And all this came at a price of just €21 million. Of course, it is too early to liken him to Dani Alves or to label him a saviour, but rest assured, Sergino Dest is a serious footballer.

Ansu Fati

Best of the Barcelona youngsters? (Photo via Imago)

Not much has been left unsaid about Ansu Fati. The teenager hailing from Guinea-Bissau has already begun forging his path up the ranks. Fati since last season has been constantly proving the old adage- “If you’re good enough, you’re old enough.”

At only 16, Ansu Fati was handed his debut, becoming Barcelona’s second-youngest debutant behind Vicente Martinez. And right since the beginning, he has set his sights on rewriting history. Somehow, despite his tender age, Fati always seems to know what to do next. A great dribbler, with a keen eye for goal and also the vision for the right pass. He is fast not only on his feet but also incredibly cognitive. Where raw talent ends, Fati possesses incredible sensibility.

He already has his name on a whole host of records since his debut less than two years ago. Barça’s youngest goalscorer in the league as well as the Champions League, Spain’s youngest ever goalscorer and many more. Fati has proven that he will be a mainstay at the club for many years to come. Though he is out with a lengthy knee injury at the moment, he has had a blistering start to the season with five goals and four assists in just ten games.

Once the 18-year-old returns to action, we can expect a lot more of the same from one of Barcelona’s biggest rising stars. After his breakout campaign last season, he already seems to have earned the trust of Ronald Koeman prior to his injury. And the young winger is only just getting started.

Pedri

Pedri is already deciding the outcome of games on his own. (Photo by PAU BARRENA/AFP via Getty Images)

Pedri Gonzalez is the latest accumulation out of all the new Barcelona youngsters that have broken into the first team. A lifelong Barcelona fan, Pedri arrived at the club from Las Palmas, stating that his dream had come true. And who would’ve thought that a 17-year-old unknown boy would cause such a stir in Catalonia?

Despite his age and regardless of his slight frame, the teenager has proven himself to be among the most technically gifted players at the club right now. And that is saying something when you play alongside players like Lionel Messi. Pedri is tremendously versatile, having showcased his ability to play anywhere across the midfield and the left-flank. His spatial awareness is second to none, making it seem almost as if he has eyes on the back of his head.

His USPs, of course, are his dribbling and passing ability. He knows exactly what to do when receiving the ball, possesses an exemplary first touch and thus almost always seems to be a step ahead of his opponents. Pedri is also very agile and can get the ball out of his feet to turn in the blink of an eye. He has been so impressive that Koeman has featured the young midfielder in every game of the season, despite altering his midfield completely thrice. And his style of play has already drawn comparisons to the likes of Andres Iniesta.

There is not a singular doubt anymore that the Canarian is an integral cog in this Barcelona machine for years to come. Pedri Gonzalez is the real deal. To think Barça only had to pay €5 million for him is not just a steal; it is an aggravated robbery in the best sense of the term.


Frankly, naming just these five might be a bit of a disservice to some of the other Barcelona youngsters. The Azulgranas have plenty of promising youth among their ranks right now. So many more players can be a part of this list, and by extension, they most certainly are. Players like Frenkie De Jong, Oscar Mingueza, Alex Collado, Inaki Pena, and more are all going to act as the vital core of this club in years to come. After all the darkness, the future has never looked brighter for Barça.

It was the great César Luis Menotti who once said that "to be a footballer means being a privileged interpreter of the feelings and dreams of many, many people". This quote has stuck with me since my childhood when football first caught my attention. My interest in football developed from a hobby to an emotion embedded into every fibre of my being. Football and Barça became my life. I spend every waking moment thinking about football and my sentimentality towards FC Barcelona is a catalyst. The world's most popular sport is a universal language that unites everyone who loves it and, to me, writing about football is being able to transmit that language in my own way.

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The curious case of La Masia and the inability to produce elite strikers

Anurag Agate

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Photos via Imago

“My agent was approached by Manchester City, Getafe, Osasuna and Rayo Vallecano also, but Barcelona was our first choice. I just want to focus on my play and prove I am worth it.”

At the age of 15, Munir El Haddadi spoke casually of being approached by Spanish first division teams, Manchester City, and one of the biggest clubs ever, FC Barcelona. He was full of confidence, and why wouldn’t he be? 32 goals in 29 games for Rayo Majadohonda’s Cadete A side had attracted the top scouts in Europe to watch this Moroccan teenager.

He eventually signed for Barcelona and showed no sign of slowing down. Winning the UEFA Youth League with the Juvenil A, scoring 11 times in ten matches, becoming Barcelona’s third-youngest goal scorer his debut and nominated for the Golden Boy award were just some of his achievements. The future looked bright for this diminutive number nine.

Six years later, he had made only 33 appearances for Barcelona, scoring a total of five times. Two seasons on loan at Valencia and Alaves, yet again with 33 appearances each, were not particularly fruitful as he scored a total of 16 goals.

An incomplete dream. (Photo via Imago)

It wasn’t like Munir was someone who got injured a lot, neither was it a case of his profile not suiting the playstyle nor was it an issue of him not having the required talent and work ethic. Since then, three of Barcelona’s most promising strikers from Barcelona’s youth academies, Pablo Moreno, Abel Ruiz, and Alejandro Marquez, have all moved on to different clubs.

There are young midfielders, defenders, and wingers who are or, have been close to establishing themselves in the first team. For goalkeepers, the first-team career usually starts a bit late because there is little necessity for rotations. But strikers? They need significantly more rest than goalkeepers, and their career doesn’t take off late either.

Despite this, why have we not seen strikers even close to breaking into the first-team recently? To answer this, we must take a look at the ideal Barcelona striker, followed by what went wrong for strikers like Munir and Abel Ruiz. After that, we examine possible solutions to this, and to conclude the article, we have insight from some of the most knowledgeable people on La Masia.

The prototype of a Barcelona number nine

Recently, Barcelona have been linked with several strikers, including Erling Haaland, Sergio Aguero, and Harry Kane. Out of these, Sergio Aguero resembles the ideal Barcelona number nine the most. The low centre of gravity, quick change of direction, and incredible shot power with little backlift are all attributes that suit positional play. However, there will be players like Haaland or Kane whose sheer quality points towards them being a success at whichever club they play.

To understand what is expected from a number nine at Barcelona, we surprisingly have to look no further than the B team. Gerard Fernandez, nicknamed ‘Peque’, is an 18-year-old playing for Garcia Pimienta’s Barcelona B side. What stands out most is the extent to which he will try and get involved in the build-up. Often dropping back to create a situation of numerical superiority, his link-up play is exquisite. This is something that a Barcelona striker must-have. The team, practising positional play, will look to play their way through the opposition rather than attempt a lot of crosses or attacking only on the counter.

The next striker carrying the La Masia dream. (Photo via Imago)

Getting in the right positions and making the right runs makes all the difference. In a system based around counter-attacking or around using a target man, the physical aspect of a player makes a huge difference. In a team such as Barcelona, however, the positioning and reading of the game come first.

Being clinical is naturally crucial for strikers. It is also one of the toughest aspects. For a striker, regardless of the player’s profile, scoring goals regularly is essential. Lastly, one of the decisive factors for a striker, chemistry. There are few examples better than Luis Suarez to discuss this. His telepathic connection with Lionel Messi was lethal. Towards the end of his tenure at Barcelona, his goalscoring abilities, including his previously clinical finishing, were somewhat deteriorating, to say the least. The chemistry, however, was still present. This factor is especially decisive in teams like Barcelona, where timing, positioning, and linking-up well are make or break for strikers.

La Masia strikers and their progression

Munir El Haddadi once thought of Barcelona’s striker for the coming decade, left the club having little to no impact. He was scoring more than a goal per 90 at Barcelona B, but he could not even come close to replicating the same for the first team. Expecting him to score at the same rate would be unrealistic. Not only did his goalscoring rate get halved, but he failed to replicate the same clinical finishing.

Abel Ruiz was Spain’s youth team poster-boy at a point. He was the captain, scored goals regularly, was incredible in the build-up and in linking-up plays. For Barcelona, however, he was unable to replicate the goalscoring form. The Spanish youth national teams, though based on positional play, would rarely hesitate to play Abel Ruiz as a target man often.

Ruiz, too, failed to carry the mantle. (Photo via Imago)

But why was it that these strikers were failing to do well in a system that they had been trained to play in since they were kids?

Possible problems and solutions

Unfortunately, we don’t have access to Barcelona’s training or what exactly they teach the strikers. Not completely, at least. The following are two drills from the 2005 training manual used by Barcelona’s Juvenil A. Compiled by the revered Alex Garcia, there are some observations to be made about these drills which could give us more information.

In this drill, ‘ejercicio de tiro’, meaning shooting practice, the red lines show movement without the ball. The player has to run behind the goal, run to the green circle on the left, pass the ball, run, pick it up again and shoot it straight first, followed by a shot to the other post in the second repetition and a straight shot from the other side of the goal in the third repetition. What this exercise does is emphasize quick passing and shooting with minimal touches.

This practice has been chosen from the manual as it encapsulates the factors that the vast majority of exercises in the training manual do. As a result, the excellent linkup play and quick shooting observed in La Masia’s number nines make sense. When shooting on the first or second touch, one has to take into account their posture, in turn improving their balance.

Coming to the second example, we have an exercise which is titled ‘Quick shooting in pairs’. As the two players performing at a time have no interdependence, we shall examine only one of the players’ paths. Essentially, in this exercise, the player passes the ball, runs without the ball through a small circuit that emphasizes quick movement and agile side-stepping preceded by a quick one-two, and then shoots. Yet again, this exercise focuses on agility, balance, combinational play, and shooting with minimal touches.

As we saw from both exercises, there is a clear focus on certain aspects at La Masia. Granted, we don’t have the full picture, but it allows us to proceed with more data at our disposal.

Taking a look at these exercises, a reason for the low success rate of La Masia strikers at first-team level can by given. These exercises are all, to an extent, ideal. What that means is that they assume that the ideal positional play practised in training will be replicated on the field. That essentially is how training works, true, but the types of opposition Barcelona face vary.

Each player has to adapt according to the opposition, not only the strikers. It, however, is much tougher for strikers. That’s what makes players like Luis Suarez so special. His finishing and positioning in the box was impressive, but when required, he would be able to dribble and make a difference on his own as well.

Luis Suarez often caught the solo boat ride, which worked for him. (Photo via Imago)

Considering Abel Ruiz and Munir El Haddadi, their lack of directness in 1v1s might have been a major hindrance. This would lead to them often being suffocated in front of the goal. When this happens for many matches, a loss of confidence is very likely, leading to them missing many chances. This recurring cycle would lead to deterioration in the overall play.

One might wonder why this is a problem seen so commonly a Barcelona and not at other clubs. To an extent, strikers might be a position where physique does indeed make a huge difference. The physique argument is ever-present in Barcelona, especially when talking about players like Riqui Puig. What most people fail to take into account is the extent to which the tiny physique helps the player. But for strikers, it seems like the disadvantages of a diminutive physique vastly outweigh the advantages.

This doesn’t mean that players with a good physique must be prioritized. It just means that the number nine is where Barcelona might have to stray a bit farther from the ideal style of play than in other positions. In short, if the team’s positional play is excellent, a number nine produced in La Masia would do very well. In the case where the team does have technically gifted players, but the required level of play is still not achieved, the striker’s odds of being influential would be better with a better physique and if he is able to convert all sorts of chances, akin to someone like Erling Haaland.

Fan’s opinions

We asked three Culés who are very well-versed in what the Barcelona philosophy entails and who regularly watch Barcelona’s youth teams their opinion regarding this.

They were asked whether there is a need to change the prototype of a Barcelona number nine to suit the current footballing landscape and how they would increase the success rate of players breaking into the first team.

Navid

“Probably, it’s just something in the methodology which doesn’t give the strikers the final edge for the highest, highest level, which is, of course, a shame. To be honest, I don’t really know how the success rate could be increased.”

Navid went on to express the fact that the strikers seem to do well in the youth teams but fail to perform in the first team. Being unsure of whether or not the prototype has to be changed, he believed that we are more likely to see players who played as false 9s like Ansu Fati and Messi breaking into the first team.

Can Ansu Fati be the no. 9 from La Masia? (Photo via Imago)

“One possible solution could be to sell them with buyback clauses pretty early on. Maybe Juvenil A level or Barcelona B level to avoid stagnation which is seen often at the Barca B level.”

“I think that we should be more aware of the best strikers and as soon as they have problems at Barcelona B, sell them with a buyback clause. Usually, it looks like they need a new start where they have a new role and can develop from there.”

“Munir was excellent, not only at La Masia but also at Barca B. But at the same time, you need consistency as a striker.”

Single Pivot

“It’s a complicated question. I suppose that scoring as a youngster is fairly easy due to Barça’s superiority, but once they go to professional football, like Segunda B, there are many factors that come into play and a striker has a lot to do: drop deep, fixate the centre-backs, also score goals. And those who scored goals find it harder to find goalscoring consistency.

All eyes on Peque. (Photo via Imago)

I keep my fingers crossed with Peque, he for me, is the ideal striker. But changing a model for a position is difficult, I don’t know what could be done in that sense.”

Sam

“Looking at the top centre-forwards globally – Haaland, Lewandowski, Benzema, Lukaku, Lautaro, Vardy, Gerard Moreno, Kane – it’s tough to imagine someone with their profile coming from La Masia in my opinion. Someone like Benzema, Kane, or maybe Isak, with their positional sense and link-up ability, are probably the closest top forwards to an ideal Barça nine, but those guys are super rare with how they mix those qualities with exceptional skill in the more traditional poaching areas.”

“So, yeah, I would say, especially as Messi starts to phase out of the side and takes a large share of goals with him, it does seem like it would be beneficial for La Masia to start producing a different style of 9.”

“You can’t just say that we should be producing Halaands or Isaks cause those guys are super unique and rare, but I guess they can serve as a template. Maybe we start focusing more on poaching aspects during player development, teaching them those to run in behind (like Halaand’s signature run into the left side of the penalty area), and working harder to identify players with unique physical profiles (Isak’s mix of length but also agility, even prime Suarez’s blend of stockiness/muscle with good bursts of speed), as well as having more patience with them.”

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