Our Guest Author: Stian Sand
We take a closer look at another La Masía talent, Cadete B’s striker Iker Bravo. The long-haired wonderboy has taken significant steps in the last few seasons. Raising from the shadow of Cristóbal Muñoz, Iker Bravo has proven himself to both the Blaugrana fans and national coaches.
Football fans around the world have been wondering themselves in the last years what happened to La Masía. The youth academy where players like Lionel Messi, Andrés Iniesta, Xavi Hernández, Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba were educated. The drought looks to be over after the excellent debut season for Ansu Fati. Ansu might be the next big thing at the Camp Nou, and if you were wondering – the amount of quality talents at La Masía is still astonishing: the latest proof is Iker Bravo. Bravo is an explosive attacking force for a Cadete B side that looks better than ever. The story of Iker Bravo is a story about fear and shyness, about one promise, and a mentality to reach the sky.
Iker Bravo Solanilla was born on 13 January 2005 in the Catalan city of Sant Cugat del Vallès. He started his footballing career when he was five years old, when his friends pushed him to join Espluguenc. Here he did not have a smooth start because of his shyness. He even felt it was ashaming when others saw him play. Iker didn’t want to play, but he wanted to watch the games. Therefore, his parents took him to a game and sat with him in the stands. His coaches invited him to play and, just like that, the Spaniard found the place where he belongs, in the field.
“Happy for my first call-up with the national team. Now it’s time to focus on my club, FC Barcelona“Iker Bravo
One day, when Iker woke up, he didn’t want to eat. His parents were worried and it all ended in a quarrel. To fix the situation, his parents showed him clips from the FCB Escola tournament. The whole situation ended with the promise that Iker could go and play at the FCB Escola tournament. It was during this tournament that FC Barcelona found their interest in the young five-year-old. Some tryouts later, they were all convinced. They wanted him to join the Prebenjamí. Iker Bravo has never looked back since and is now a lethal centre-forward for the Cadete B, the Catalan team and, at last, the Spanish national U16 team.
Playing style: The goalscoring machine
At La Masía, Iker Bravo has always been big for his age. In fact, the opposing coaches would often ask if he could stop “shooting too hard”. You might believe that the powerhouse was using his great physical attributes to his advantage, but Iker has always had exceptional abilities with his feet. Iker’s ability to do the unthinkable gives us flashbacks of Zlatan Ibrahimović. The size, the flair, and the lethal goalscoring ability are just on another level.
Iker Bravo has an outstanding physique for his age | Photo by FC Barcelona
Where Iker Bravo is most dangerous at is when he receives the ball at the 30 feet mark. His ability to shield the ball against opponents and his first touch to create room for his deadly finish are just outstanding. His way of reading the game when he makes his run into the box for a cross is remarkable as well. Another capability we find in Iker’s toolbox is his work rate. The way of pressing two central defenders is an overlooked art, but, after all, an art. Iker does it better than most attackers.
His smartness gives him the option to close out the centre-backs without the ball and put pressure on the ballcarrier. In this way, the Cadete B recover a lot of balls high up the pitch that they can use to their benefit. With 10 goals in 10 fixtures this season, Iker is the main reason the Cadete B find themselves at the top of the table. With a goal ratio of a goal per game, Iker proves why he is a starter for the Under-16 national team.
Because of his skillset, Iker Bravo can also be a part of the build-up play in his side. Coach Marc Serra has done a great job in getting Iker Bravo involved in the build-ups, which gives the Cadete B an extra man to generate superiorities. His overview is excellent, and his passing ability is also crisp sharp. It is easy to see how the Cadete B is lacking attacking threat when Iker is off the pitch.
How does the future hold for Iker Bravo?
Last season was an awful one for Iker Bravo’s team. With a new coach and a new system, the young culés were not able to perform to their true potential. Fans of La Masía started to lose confidence in the group that, one year earlier, had won La Liga Promises. Before this campaign began, Barça’s technical secretary made a move and gave Marc Serra the challenging job of getting the Cadete B back on its feet – and boy has it turned out well.
One of the most significant achievements of Marc Serra so far is getting Iker Bravo to perform at this incredible level. Raising from the shadow of the fantastic prospect in Cristóbal Munoz, the shy boy has taken steps nobody could see coming. Well, except Marc Serra. More regular playtime with the older Cadete A might be in sight for Iker this spring. If Iker Bravo continues his outrageous development, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him join the 2004 generation on full terms next year.
Best starting XI of ex-La Masía players
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.