Barça’s prestigious academy has produced countless first-team players and many club legends over the years. However, there are several world-class footballers who have come out of La Masía and are now thriving outside Barcelona at other clubs. Let’s have a look at some of the ones that got away.
For years, La Masía has been considered to be in decline. The relationship between the academy and Barcelona’s first team has deteriorated, and many have hinted at the lack of quality in a youth system that once produced the likes of Carles Puyol, Xavi Hernández, Andrés Iniesta, Víctor Valdés, Gerard Piqué, Sergio Busquets, Pedro Rodríguez and, of course, Lionel Messi.
That said, the main issue has not been a lack of gifted prospects at La Masía, but the lack of visibility and opportunities these have received in Barcelona’s senior side. As we will see in this article, the academy has continued to produce many excellent footballers, but, unfortunately, they have had to find chances elsewhere. In this report, we present five of the former La Masía players who have shone the most around Europe in the 2019/20 season.
Thiago Alcântara is the most high-profile player on this list, and for good reason. Back in 2005, Thiago joined La Masía at just fourteen years of age. He rose up the ranks, showing great promise and earned his first-team debut when he was still only eighteen. He looked set to become the next in the line of Barça’s homegrown midfield maestros.
However, in 2013, Thiago left on a bargain deal to Bayern Munich, due to the now-infamous release clause in his contract that could be triggered should he not receive enough minutes. Since then, the Spaniard has consistently been one of the most well-rounded central midfielders in Europe, and the 2019/20 was arguably his best season yet.
His goals and assists in the Bundesliga did drop from 8 to 3 as he moved into a slightly deeper role this past campaign. But outside of that, Thiago’s numbers were simply sublime. He can advance the ball with passing, he can advance the ball with dribbling – both with extreme efficiency – and he can win the ball in defence. There is not much more you could ask for out of a midfielder than that which Thiago offers.
As a key piece in Bayern’s treble-winning side, it’s now even more clear how costly it was for Barça to let him go. Available for 30 million euros and linked with a move to Liverpool, maybe Barcelona should consider bringing their golden boy back.
From a technical central midfielder to an explosive winger, we now go to Adama Traoré. While he isn’t the typical La Masía product, his immense quality is undeniable. Although to Malian parents, Adama was born in L’Hospitalet de Llobregat, Barcelona, and joined the youth set-up at just eight years old.
As a UEFA Youth League winner and a first-team debutant at the age of seventeen, the potential was always there. Nonetheless, Adama was sold in 2015 to Aston Villa, with Barça electing to take the risk with a three-year buy-back clause in his contract. While he had a slow start and some ups and downs in England, his 2019/20 campaign with Wolves established him as one of Europe’s best wide players.
Despite some parts of his game are lacking, particularly goalscoring, for the areas in which Adama excels almost nobody matches his production. He is close to unstoppable with his dribbling, constantly beating his defender out wide before putting a pinpoint cross into the box.
With 9 Premier League assists this past course, Wolves in European football again for this coming campaign, and a recent call-up to the Spanish national team, everything is looking up for Adama. He may not be the typical Barcelona winger, but it is hard to imagine any side in football wouldn’t benefit from having someone with Adama Traoré’s skillset.
Moving into defence, we now have the Manchester City youngster, Eric García. Unlike Adama and Thiago, García left the club before even playing a minute for the first team. After being in La Masia from 2008 to 2017, the centre-back was persuaded to leave and join Pep Guardiola‘s project in Manchester.
This past season, Eric García earned his first senior minutes and played in many of City’s big matches late after the coronavirus break. To be trusted that much by Guardiola as a teenager is quite remarkable and indicative of the potential the 19-year-old has.
His stats certainly reflect his La Masía development, as his ball-playing numbers range from above-average to world-class. He’s good at anticipating and intercepting passes, as well as containing dribblers. However, García’s weaknesses are found in what we will call “assertive” defending. When pressing opponents on the ball, he very rarely wins it, and his aerial numbers are abysmal.
Still, with Eric García the good still undoubtedly outweighs the bad. If he can improve in those areas to reach even an average level, his brilliant technique and reading of the game will make him one of the world’s best. As he has rejected contract renewals from City, Barcelona fans have plenty to be optimistic about if the rumours of a return are true.
While he may not be as established as those first three names, Dani Olmo is certainly one to watch for the future. After seven years in La Masía, Olmo decided to leave in 2014, once again before a first-team debut. He went to Croatia, joining Dinamo Zagreb. Even if it was a surprising move at the time, it certainly looks like it has paid off for him.
At Zagreb, Olmo gained multiple seasons of top-flight experience as a teenager, in addition to Europa League and Champions League football. Finally, in January 2020, Olmo made his big move to RB Leipzig, who are notorious for their brilliant scouting. While it has been a tough time to settle in at a new club, Dani Olmo showed promising signs.
The 22-year-old midfielder did well to chip in with a few goals in his limited Bundesliga minutes. Although, based on his much-lower expected goals tally, he will have to work on getting in better shooting positions to keep that up.
There are definitely some signs of growing pains and adapting to a new league. His creative passing stats are very low, and his dribbling numbers are awful, possibly showing that he hasn’t quite adapted to the Bundesliga’s intensity yet. Notwithstanding, his elite performance in through balls, as well as pressing volume and efficiency, shows that he fits Julian Nagelsmann’s system well. With more time do adapt, plus some more confidence from his goal in the Champions League quarterfinals, the 2020/21 term could be a big one for Olmo.
Alejandro Grimaldo is the only player here who is currently playing outside of the big five European Leagues, but he by no means lacks the quality to do so. Back in 2011, he played his first match for Barça B at just fifteen, becoming the youngest player ever in the Segunda División. He continued with the B team all the way through 2015, yet he could never break into Luis Enrique’s senior side.
With his contract, and his patience, expiring, Grimaldo left to join Portugal’s Benfica. For years now, he has been one of Europe’s highest-rated young left-backs. While he hasn’t made his big transfer yet, the stats suggest it’s only a matter of time.
No full-back in Portugal was better at supplying chances to their teammates, with Grimaldo leading the league in expected assists and key passes. He excels at getting deep into the attacking third and picking out the right option, an essential skill for any full-back at a big club in today’s game.
He also is very tidy at progressing the ball with his passing, above average with his dribbling, and very efficient in duels with attackers. He’s been linked multiple times with a return to Barça over the years, and with Jordi Alba ageing, Grimaldo certainly seems like a great potential replacement.
Tactical Analysis of Barcelona’s season opener against Villareal
FC Barcelona kicked off their 2020-21 La Liga campaign at home against Villareal in style. They won by a margin of 4-0, marking a very auspicious and positive start to the Ronald Koeman era.
The shape of the team
The starting eleven was, somewhat expectedly, the same set of players that started against Elche in the Joan Gamper Trophy. Neto started in goal in the absence of Marc Andre Ter Stegen. Gerard Pique, Clement Lenglet, Jordi Alba and Sergi Roberto started in defence, Sergio Busquets and Frenkie de Jong started in a double pivot, Ansu Fati and Antoine Griezmann started as nominal wingers, Philippe Coutinho started as the nominal 10, and Lionel Messi as the nominal 9. Here is Barcelona’s pass map until the first substitution (minute 70):
As can be seen, Griezmann frequently dropped deep and moved in – and he can be forgiven for that, for he is not a natural right-winger; he is an SS. Messi dropped less deep as compared to the Elche game, but he still had the freedom to roam.
The left side of the team was highly effective. Jordi Alba was a constant menace down the flank and combined wonderfully with Fati. Frenkie and Coutinho lent their support down the left whenever possible. In stark contrast, the right side was not effective at all. Griezmann had the least passes and touches among the outfielders and didn’t combine effectively with Roberto at all. Going ahead, this might be a headache to solve.
Barcelona were devastatingly good in offence in the first half. They scored 4 unanswered goals, had an overall of 17 shots in the game, 9 of which were on target. Here is a small data table compiling some stats at a glance for the game:
Here is a comparison of the shot map and the xG flow of the game; as shown, Villareal never really got a sniff at Barca’s goal and couldn’t assert themselves at any stage of the game.
All of this could’ve been possibly very different, had Paco Alcacer decided to take a first time shot instead of chesting the ball down in the path of his Villareal teammate early in the game. That didn’t result in a shot, and the rest is, as they say, history.
Barcelona’s goals came in all varieties. The first goal was a wonderful long ball over the top from Clement Lenglet to Jordi Alba, who pulled it back for Ansu Fati to smash in a great shot.
This was very much reminiscent of how Messi set up Alba for the goal against Elche.
The second goal came from a quick break. Lenglet released Coutinho from deep in Barcelona’s defensive third. Coutinho carried the ball upfield quickly, catching Villareal out with a fast break. A simple layoff and Fati took care of the rest with a brilliant near-post finish past Sergio Asenjo.
The third goal came from a penalty, won again by Fati with a burst of speed into the box, and getting fouled. There was a nice bit of buildup to that:
And finally, there was also the return of the own goal – a pass from Messi to the onrushing Busquets – yes, you read that correct – in Villareal’s penalty box led to Pau Torres poking the ball into his own net past Asenjo.
While the tempo dropped a lot in the second half, there were still plenty of shots taken by Barcelona that required Asenjo to pull off some wonderful saves to keep the scoreline down to 4-0. Most notable was the save from Francisco Trincao’s shot late in the second half. On the other end, Neto came up with a calm display to keep Takefusa Kubo’s shot away.
As mentioned earlier, the bulk of the productive buildup happened from the left side. Lenglet made a wonderful pre-assist and was assured in his passing in general. Alba was a threat throughout, with his brilliant off-the-ball runs and cutbacks to Fati, Messi, and Coutinho. Fati was a threat with his direct running and taking on defenders. Coutinho and Frenkie provided good support too. Here is a look at all progressive passes by all the starting outfield players:
Next we take a look at a wide variety of progressive/attacking passes by both teams (only completed passes are shown):
The half spaces and the left wing were very well utilized, and there were quite a few passes into the box from zone 14 as well.
Villareal didn’t breach the box as frequently as Barcelona did, thanks to some abysmal crossing by Pervis Estupinan. It was only after Kubo came on that they could get into the box with some regularity from the left. But by then, it was 4-0 late into the second half, and Barcelona had taken the foot of the gear completely.
Something that’s easily noticed in the plots above, and is a definite bit of concern, is Griezmann’s struggles with linkup play. He could not combine effectively with Roberto, and bulk of his passes were back to Busquets or Frenkie or Messi back into the midfield. If he is to continue playing as a winger down the right, he has to strengthen his combination play along the wing a lot more. Being able to take on defenders will be an additional bonus too. Right now, the right side is very limited as compared to the left. It remains to be seen if and when Sergino Dest can change the dynamic there upon arrival.
As has been mentioned earlier in the data table, the PPDA recorded by neither of the teams were particularly impressive. PPDA is a proxy for pressing intensity – the number of opposition passes allowed per defensive actions. From Wyscout, Barca recorded a PPDA of 15 while Villareal had a PPDA of 22. In other words, Barca allowed Villareal to pass around for 15 times on average before trying to win the ball back with some defensive action like tackles or interceptions. Compared to the European pressing elites like Bayern Munich or Manchester City, these numbers are pretty bad. It was evident during the game that Barcelona didn’t go all out trying to press. They picked and chose moments when to. Same goes for Villareal as well. They showed too much respect to Barca, and allowed them to build from the back very comfortably. Here are the defensive heatmaps of each team:
Its very clear how Barca didn’t try to high-press for bulk of the game, and how Villareal spent of lot time trying to defend against the threat of Jordi Alba and Ansu Fati.
For Barcelona, Gerard Pique was a rock, and so was Lenglet. Neither of them allowed a Villareal forward to run past them, and blocked and cleared all shots and crosses into the box. Pique in particular was called into action many times because Roberto was caught way up the field in transitions. Belying his age, he put forth a magnificent defensive performance in sweeping up everything that came up his way.
Busquets and Frenkie, while mostly assured in passing, had their nervy moments as well. Busquets was particularly awful in the first 20-25 minutes. He repeatedly misplaced his passes and that led to repeated transition attacks against Barcelona. In the same vein, Frenkie, who played really well for the first 70 minutes, lost the ball at least three times in the last 20 minutes. Each of the resulting attacks by Villareal were threatening, and required timely interventions by Lenglet and attentive goalkeeping by Neto to snuff out. Going ahead, this is going to be a concern. Both of them need to clean their games up quite a bit.
Ousmanne Dembele, Miralem Pjanic, Francisco Trincao and Pedri had short cameos in the second half. All of them looked decent. Dembele kept it simple with his passing, and I for one am glad about it. He is returning from a long injury layoff and needs to take it slow and simple. There will be plenty of time to watch his explosive pace and dribbling once he has regained confidence and has stayed fit for a reasonable chunk of time. Pjanic seemed to have shaken off his rust and did pretty well to win the ball back on a couple of occasions, and was very clean with his passes. Pedri was his usual bumbling self. He helped out defensively, connected well with the wingers in passing, and was always a threat with his runs. Trincao looked impressive yet again, and could have scored his maiden goal for Barca but for a magnificent save by Asenjo. He meant business; trying to take on defenders, and trying to shoot whenever he found an opportunity.
There is no denying that Villareal was abjectly poor, especially in the first half (surprising given the players they managed to buy in the transfer window). They left behind lots of space that was ruthlessly exploited by Barcelona. Not all Spanish teams are going to give up similar amounts of space to Barca in the coming games. In fact, it’s probably best to assume that none will. In such tight games, it will be interestingly to see how this fluid 4-2-3-1 with Griezmann as a wide player manage to perform. I was personally happy with the game, and only look forward to more good performances from the team.