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.
Detailed Analysis: Atletico Madrid 1-0 Barcelona
In collaboration with Anurag Agate.
Ronald Koeman’s Barcelona faced Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid at the Wanda Metropolitano. In a game marred by defensive blunders and devastating injuries, Barcelona lost the game 1-0 to fellow title-challengers.
A 1-0 loss to Atletico Madrid in La Liga left Barcelona reeling midtable. This was also the first time Diego Simeone’s side beat Barcelona in the La Liga. Coupled with crucial injuries to Gerard Pique and Sergi Roberto, Barcelona now face a dire path ahead of their UCL game against Dynamo Kyiv.
Barcelona structure and formation
Ronald Koeman went in with his tried and tested 4-2-3-1 formation. Marc Andre Ter Stegen started in goal again. Gerard Pique and Clement Lenglet formed the centre back pairing, flanked by Jordi Alba and Sergi Roberto. In the absence of Sergio Busquets, Miralem Pjanic stepped up to form the double pivot with the ever-present Frenkie de Jong.
Pedri and Ousmane Dembele played on the flanks, with Lionel Messi in the hole and Antoine Griezmann upfront. However, as before, Messi and Griezmann had lots of interchanging positions. Pedri played more in the half-space in possession while Dembele stayed out wide. This often made the team structure a lop-sided 4-4-2. In defensive transitions, it was always a 4-4-2 with Griezmann dropping deeper to defend. Messi restricted his pressing to zones high up the pitch.
Frenkie de Jong had the freedom to push up high in the first half. However, the absence of Ansu Fati meant that the usual overload on the left side did not work in this game. Pedri had a poor game in general. Him moving far too infield to let Alba run down the left did not quite work – the passing was far too restricted by Atleti’s excellent defending. A second-half injury to Pique meant that de Jong had to play 35 minutes roughly as a centre back, which he did very well.
Atletico structure and formation
Atletico were missing some key personnel as well, most notably perhaps, Luis Suarez up top. They also missed a regular left-back Renan Lodi, and Hector Herrera and Lucas Torreira in midfield. They lined up in a highly asymmetric 4-4-2/5-3-2 structure and style.
Stefan Savic and Jose Gimenez formed the centre back partnership. Mario Hermoso played in a hybrid centre-back/extremely defensive full-back role. Kieran Trippier was the more offensive fullback, practically functioning as a wing-back. Yannick Carrasco and Marcos Llorente joined the reliable duo of Koke and Saul Niguez in central midfield as wide midfielders. Carrasco played almost in a hybrid wide midfield/wingback role. Joao Felix and Angel Correa formed the front two.
The hybrid system was particularly evident in the different phases of the game. In attack, Hermoso would push out wide like a full back but stay in more defensive, withdrawn zones. Carrasco had the freedom to stay wide looking for overlapping runs to meet Felix’s clever passes. On the other side, Llorente would shift infield, allowing Trippier to bomb forward.
Felix himself overlapped down the left side several times, trying to create numeric overloads against Roberto and Pique, dragging Pjanic wide in the process. Carrasco’s and Felix’s overlaps on the left, coupled with Saul Niguez moving ball-near side and Correa dropping in to give options – this combination created quite a few problems in the first half. Here is an example – it led to Saul’s shot early on which was saved by ter Stegen.
The game was more or less evenly balanced – neither team were outright dominant than the other in any aspect. Here is the game data at a glance:
Barcelona enjoyed marginally more possession, marginally more shots and shots on target, and a better press than Atletico. Of course, the hosts had the all-deciding goal in their favour. Neither team generated high-quality shots overall, as the shot map and xG flowchart shows :
Barcelona’s possession superiority was pretty stale. Barcelona failed to dominate critical territorial zones, measured by field tilt – which is the percentage share of final third passes of each team. Even though Barcelona had higher field tilt, it was only marginal. What strikes out is that just the goal came when Barcelona were enjoying their best bit of territorial dominance.
Buildup to shots and goals
Next we take a look at some of the shots and the goal. Early on, Barcelona had the chance to score. Dembele burned his marker with pace and sent a cross into the box. It was met by a clever flick by Greizmann. The shot sailed high unfortunately.
Atleti had their chances on the other side as well. Soon after Saul saw his shot saved, the other flank created yet another moment of danger. A brilliant interchange of passing involving Correa and Trippier met Llorente’s clever run into the box. The shot crashed against the bar.
Towards the end of the first half, Barcelona could have scored again. There was a brilliant bit of buildup, a clever run by Griezmann to drag a defender, and then Messi ghosted blindside of the center mids to meet Alba’s nutmeg pass. The angle was too tight and Messi failed to score.
Soon after, Barcelona conceded the goal. Pique stepped up to intercept a long ball. Ideally, that should have been fine, except Pique miscontrolled the pass. That left almost everyone out of position. A simple ball over the top released Carrasco into oceans of space. But the maddening part perhaps was that ter Stegen left his box wildly to tackle the Belgian. He missed; Carrasco did not – he scored into an empty net from distance.
In the second half, Barcelona had chances to equalize. However, Lenglet headed straight at Jan Oblak twice. Greizmann headed straight at Oblak once. Barcelona failed to engineer any better chances than those. The key passes map shows the crosses into the box:
Atletico’s strength lies in engaging from wide areas. In this game, their biggest threats came again from the wide zones. Hermoso, Koke, Saul and Felix regularly released Carrasco and Trippier down the flanks. Trippier would often look for cutbacks or layoff into Llorente upfield.
Barcelona on the other hand tried to create from all possible zones. Frenkie de Jong managed to pull off a wonderful long pass into the box that Greizmann miscontrolled. Dembele single-handedly created chances from the right. The combinations of Alba and Messi created – in subdued amounts – danger from the other side.
For Barcelona, Messi, de Jong, Dembele and Alba were the bulk progressive passers. For Atleti, Koke, Trippier, Hermoso and Savic progressed the ball the most.
Both teams also tried to use width a lot. Surprisingly, Barcelona had more switches of play than Atleti, who have built their game to attack wider areas. For Barcelona, perhaps the reason for frequent switching was that they could not progress a lot directly.
The game data table posted above shows us that neither team pressed a lot. PPDA, which is a proxy for pressing intensity, was around 20 for both teams (low values of PPDA indicate high pressing). Here are the maps showing the defensive activities of both team:
Atleti forbade any progress down the centre. Upfield, they tried to press Pedri and Alba from creating too much danger. Deep in their half, they tried to force Dembele as wide as possible and tried to isolate him. Barcelona pressed all over the pitch in the middle-third. In deeper zones, they had to deal with the wide threats of Carrasco and Felix, and Llorente’s infield runs. The following plot also shows how Atleti forced passes wide and forced mistakes :
Two recurring issues troubled Barcelona yet again. The lack of chemistry and the lack of experience of the youth meant that certain runs went untracked. Atleti’s rapid front line dragged Barcelona into wrong zones, allowing trailing players to ghost into blindside runs. Saul and Llorente’s efforts at goal are perfect examples of this. In the first case, Pjanic was pulled in, leaving Saul free. In the second case, Pedri’s inexperience led to him losing his mark against Llorente completely.
Speed is always an issue that Barcelona has had trouble against. Llorente’s quick underlaps created quite a bit of trouble for Lenglet. Here is yet another example of a run – the pass from Llorente was thankfully cleared.
The goal was a combination of poor positioning and lack of speed, combined with some poor touch and terrible decision-making. Pique was out of position when he made the failed interception. No one in the team was speedy enough to catch up to Carrasco down the left. Ter Stegen should have communicated better with Lenglet and stayed in the box because Lenglet was haring down to secure the centre.
Issues have now been compounded with injuries to Pique and Roberto. If they face lengthy spells away from the pitch, Barcelona are stretched thin in the defence department. De Jong looks set to continue as a centre back for the next game at the very least and Sergino Dest will have to start. Barcelona faces extremely testing times ahead.