A thorough analysis of La Masía flamboyant winger Ilias Akhomach. A look at his profile, playing style and expectations for the future.
One of the worst things in youth football is putting nicknames to the kids and hoping that they become the like-for-like replacements of their idols. This tends to happen very often in order to make comparisons on the playing style, but can be very detrimental for the boys as it means adding extra pressure on their shoulders. For example, Lionel Messi was once labelled “the new Maradona” as the Argentinian media desperately searched for the heir to the former Napoli legend.
This by no means is something unusual at La Masía either, with the likes of Bojan Krkić and Gerard Deulofeu being called “the new Messi” in the past. This puts the spotlight on 17, 16 or even 15-year-olds, when their evolution would instead be much smoother and more serene with lower expectations and less attention from the general public.
“There won’t be another [Andrés] Iniesta, just like there won’t be another of anyone. My idols were [Pep] Guardiola and [Michael] Laudrup, but I didn’t become them. I made myself who I am. Players with those characteristics will mark history, but we’re all different”Andrés Iniesta
Even if being called ‘the new X’ and being linked to a legend of the game may seem a reason for pride, the footballers themselves often try to avoid such comparisons. Andrés Iniesta once said that he could not be the new Laudrup, as he had to be the first Iniesta instead. Unfortunately, though, these labels have become increasingly common among football fans. What is even more worrying, however, is that someone with a high position in a top club like Barcelona publicly says that he has “the new Messi” under control. Back in November, Barça’s academy director Patrick Kluivert expressed that “in La Masía we already have the new Messi”. Later, Cadena SER revealed that this “new Messi” is Ilias Akhomach.
It is outrageous to even think about that, and it is even more disgraceful to say it openly when you are the head of the entire academy and are supposed to protect and track the development of thousands of talents. That said, the sudden rise in interest in Ilias Akhomach doesn’t come only from Kluivert’s words, but from his incredible evolution in recent months at La Masía. In this article, we will review not the next Messi, but the first Ilias.
Ilias Akhomach Chakkour, of Moroccan family, was born on 16 April 2004 in Igualada, in the province of Barcelona. He began playing football at his hometown club, Hostalets de Pierola, as his passion for the sport was awaken by watching his older brother Anuar play. He was his inspiration. After two years, Barcelona recruited Ilias and added him to the Prebenjamín squad. Now it was Anuar who admired his younger brother and couldn’t miss a single game from him. Nonetheless, in his final year as an Alevín, Ilias Akhomach didn’t make the cut in the leap to 11-a-side football, and he was forced to leave La Masía.
Ilias Akhomach joined La Masía again in 2017 and had a breakthrough season in the 18/19 with the Cadete B | Photo by Ungdoms Fotboll
He did not stop there. He had a lot of quality in his boots and he only had to prove it. For this reason, in 2016 he moved to Nàstic de Tarragona, one of the best teams in Fut-11 in Catalonia. There he stood out greatly. In that campaign with Nàstic’s Infantil B, he was a nightmare for any rival, including Barça, who faced him in several tournaments. In one of these, at the Internacional Carnaval Cup de Argentona, he captured the attention of the blaugranas again.
Jordi Roura was impressed, even if he didn’t recognise him at first. Aureli Altimira did. After that contest, those in charge of La Masía admitted their error to the family of Ilias Akhomach. They offered him a long-term contract, but the rising star already had many offers, including from Real Madrid. Even so, Ilias was not resentful and decided to return to Barcelona, the best place to continue with his development.
In 2017 he moved to Barça’s Infantil A. His adaptation was very fluid, both on and off the pitch, and little by little he started to make a name for himself in the academy. Now, at Sergi Milà’s Cadete A, he has continued to be one of their main figures in another great generation in the making. Ilias will soon be turning 16, so the technical secretary is already looking to offer him his first professional contract. According to reports, the renewal negotiations for Ilias and also Pablo Páez are already underway. Two gems for the culés who have obviously attracted great interest from foreign clubs, but Barcelona must look to renew them no matter what. Besides, at international level, Akhomach holds the dual Moroccan and Spanish citizenships, but he has lately been playing for Spain’s U-16. For club and country, Ilias is progressing at an impressive pace.
Ilias Akhomach certainly is one of the most promising footballers at La Masía at present. Being left-footed, he can act as a right winger, attacking midfielder or forward. Actually, a week ago he even played as a false 9 and scored two goals, including a wonderful long shot, in a 2–2 away draw against CE Europa, which unfortunately ended the Cadete A’s flawless run. Notwithstanding, while he can be deployed as a mediapunta, he is not the same type of player as Brian Peña. Ilias is more electric and direct, a priori making him ideal for the right-wing role.
The 2004 age group is one of the brightest crops of talent at Barcelona’s academy | Photo by FC Barcelona
Ilias is a dribbling expert. Whether through the wing or in the middle, he continuously causes headaches to his rivals. A specialist in tricking defences and wreaking havoc on them, he is unstoppable when he has the ball at his feet and is at full speed. He has a wonderful technique which he combines with his ruthlessness, audacity and imagination. He’s a magical and tricky forward-thinking player, with a one-one-one within reach of very few. He moves past opponents very easily, almost effortlessly. His natural ability to glide through defenders with elegance and unpredictability make of Ilias Akhomach one of the most fun prospects to watch at La Masía.
The 2004 generation unquestionably is a golden one at the academy. Pablo Páez Gavi, Diego Almeida, Arnau Casas, Marc Jurado, Biel Vicens, Ángel Alarcón, Antonio Caravaca, Xavier Planas, Aleix Garrido…Nevertheless, it used to lack someone with the talent to imbalance defences and add dynamism in the final third. Ilias, with his brutal capacity to assist and create chances out of nowhere, has provided just that.
What does the future hold for Ilias Akhomach?
A case could be made that 12-year-old Lamine Yamal and Ilias have fairly similar profiles. Both of Moroccan origin, they are two left-footed mobile, energetic and hugely influential footballers for their respective teams. And, of course, they are two of the brightest gems at the academy. That said, Lamine is quite younger and is still adapting to 11-a-side football. Ilias Akhomach, though, is also still very young, in spite of having showcased a frightening potential at La Masía. It surely is worth keeping an eye on him, both because he is extremely entertaining to watch, and because his ceiling is high enough to leave his mark at Barcelona. Still, it is way too early to tell, and with the ‘new Ilias’, like with any other prospect, a lot of calmness and responsibility is required – something which Patrick Kluivert did not have.
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.